It starts before I’ve even reached the sidelines.
The strange sound of a car-less central London on the walk from the Tube. The giddiness fizzing off crowds lining the streets surrounding our city’s most iconic landmarks. A sea of anticipating faces looking out for loved ones. Making my way into the hordes, the familiar stinging pricks the corners of my eyes, a strained throat interrupts words. By Pall Mall salty tears are spilling down my cheeks and I’m a blubbering mess.
Certain things in life inexplicably make you cry. Flying on a plane solo (apparently it’s something to do with the altitude and ensuing dehydration), the gush of endorphin-charged emotion post-spin class or the slow release of savasana after a deep yoga practice. I have never run a marathon (nor do I ever plan to) but there is something about marathon-watching that is guaranteed to make me well up. Each year it’s the same, and after an almost two-year hiatus I’m already getting goosebumps just thinking about Sunday’s London Marathon.
Granted, it’s not hard to see why marathon runners themselves often cross the finish line in floods of tears. That’s easier to explain, says sports psychologist Josephine Perry. “They’ve had four to five months of training behind that day, for people running, it’s like a beacon they’re coming up towards, especially if they’ve joined a running club or online forums and made connections along their training journey.”
She continues: “When that day comes their emotional systems are going to be on high alert, they’re doing something that’s new and different. When they’re at the start line of 26.2 miles, they don’t know that they’re going to finish,” she continues. “For me, it’s crossing Tower Bridge that feels very emotional because you’re very cramped up at that point, you’re somewhere iconic and half way and like ‘OK I might actually do this.’ Then, later, that run down the Mall to finish when you realise you will actually do it, all of that emotion and pride in yourself comes to the fore so we can find ourselves crying at that point.”
So it’s unsurprising that putting yourself through such a mentally and physically gruelling experience can make you feel emotional, but why do I find myself getting choked up when I’m not even partaking? Weeping when I don’t even know anyone running that year?
Apparently I’m not alone. My friend Liv tells me that recently watching the Brighton Marathon, it was the names on people’s’ vests that made her teary. “Bystanders on the pavement were calling out to people they didn’t know - ‘KEEP GOING MICHAEL!’, ‘C’MON KERRY!’’’ The act of cheering on an exhausted stranger, telling them they can make it, really got to me,” she says, adding: “Marathons are a feat of endurance, and endurance is something we’ve all been tested on recently. I think we all need to hear ‘keep going’ sometimes.”
Runners and onlookers feed off one another and there is a shared sense of empathy in these scenarios, offers Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at CHHP. “The crowd connects with the effort those runners are making for those 26 miles and witnessing their struggle helps us to connect with their sense of achievement,” he says. “We see them running, smiling through gritted teeth, particularly along Embankment when they might have three miles to go but those last three miles are a grind.
“I’ve run 15 marathons and London is one of the few where you get support from gun to finish. The crowd knows it’s their job to cheer on the runners and the runners know it’s their job to put one foot in front of other, then there’s the collective sense of support among the audience, with everyone cheering on each other’s friends and family.”
The fantastic charitable causes behind the race, for which everyone is running, are another trigger for this emotional response. Another friend tells me both times they’ve gone to watch the start of the marathon in Blackheath, they’ve been utterly overwhelmed by the sense of “togetherness.” “All of these people doing something extraordinary to help other people by raising money. It’s not just the runners, it’s the people lining the streets to support, everyone caring about the world and each other - it’s the best side of humans.”
This year’s (again postponed) London Marathon takes place on Sunday October 3 after mass participation in 2020’s race was cancelled in response to Covid and only elite runners were allowed to take part. I’ll never forget the sight of determined solo runners in their bibs making their way around the crowd-less Hackney canals last October - commitment at it’s most admirable.
Perry predicts this year will be more emotional than ever. “The races I’ve done this year have felt different, there’s a real sense of gratitude at being here,” she says. “Whatever your situation through the pandemic, there’s been a lot more ambiguity and we’ve not had the same level of autonomy. And then you go and throw 40,000 people on the streets having invested all that time and energy into their training, you can imagine there will probably be more tears - in a good way!”
After an exhausting 18 months and a sickening week of news related to female violence, rallying together to cheer on our marathoners is exactly what London needs as we collectively begin to heal. Tissues at the ready.