London Marathon beats 40 with a long way to go | In fgeneral
The thing about a long run is where it can take you.
The London Marathon returns to the streets of the British capital on Sunday 3 October for perhaps its most significant edition to date. This will be the 40th mass race of the annual event, whose 40th anniversary passed in April. This little statistical quirk, for an event held once a year, is of course due to the fact that the 2020 edition was skipped due to Covid-19.
Or, more specifically, it has been radically changed, with a deferred “virtual” interpretation allowing participants to submit times for 26.2 mile races across the country. This inspired a first hybrid version for 2021, with the 40,000 runners on the starting line joined by 40,000 other participants from a distance. It marks a new start for a race whose development has often followed that of the mass participation space.
When it launched in 1981, the London Marathon was neither the first annual marathon nor the first audience. The Boston Marathon has been held since 1897, inspired by the 1896 Olympics, and was joined during the 20th century by races across the world. London even had its own setting, the Polytechnic Marathon, which was inaugurated in 1909 and continued until 1996.
But the London Marathon has come to an inflection point for a handful of massive sports trends, from sponsorship to the industrialization of long-distance running as a popular pastime. Athlete and journalist Chris Brasher – who co-founded the London Marathon with John Disley and is the father of current race director Hugh Brasher – competed in the New York Marathon and found the experience so moving he described the race in a 1979 article for the Observer newspaper as “the greatest folk festival the world has ever seen”.
As the viability of mass participation races increased through the 1980s and 1990s, it was this element – humanity and the immense and diverse collective adventure of the whole – that became central. It also allowed the development of a rich cottage industry, both separate and fueled by the ordeal of months of training and preparation for the big set pieces: performance clothing, nutrition, expert direction.
During this period, mass endurance events and the Third Sector formed their inseparable bond. Runners in the 2019 London Marathon raised £ 66.4million (US $ 89.2million) for charitable causes, bringing the total to over £ 1 billion (US $ 1.34 billion) since 1981. These intrinsic links have been underscored by the presence of Virgin Money. as a main sponsor and payment facilitator since 2010 – although the company will be replaced as a main partner by Tata Consultancy Services next year.
The mass participation industry has also grown into something where, to choose a phrase carefully, your mileage may vary. For every challenge that has become longer, more extreme, or more distinctive than the marathon, there are others that are more forgiving or accessible. The pre-pandemic success of shows like Parkrun has shown a lot about the evolution of space.
Parkrun offers flexibility – runners participate in hands-on events in their area – with stability and community. Its non-judgmental 5k runs set a low bar for newcomers, but simple time tracking gives more serious amateur athletes a weekly indicator of their pace and progress.
Events like this also highlight how and why participation in activities such as running, biking and swimming has progressed in this way over the past decades. Sport for exercise may have become more personal, more suited to accommodate busier, modular lives, but there is still a place for benchmarking and shared experience.
This idea is now at the heart of emerging connected fitness companies, which have digitized the additional motivation and security that comes from training or competing with peers. Users can find structured diets and guided exercises through Peloton, they can simulate real-world contests through Zwift, or track and share their progress through mobile apps like Strava. Taken together, these services have a surprising effect.
In a conversation about the overlap between sports, games and culture on the latest SportsPro podcast, Owen Laverty, innovation director at Ear To The Ground, said these platforms can be seen as parallels to digital communities that come together around video games like EA Sports’ Fifa Series.
“It’s just interesting, in terms of behavior we see things like Peloton and StatSports and some of those types of sports tech performance brands that have digital platforms that naturally create content from the people participating,” he said, presenting the agency’s upcoming Fan Intelligence Index.
“It’s similar to what we talked about with Fifa where people play, it naturally creates content that people feed into a digital community where people talk, compare and engage with what comes out, challenges each other, And it’s starting to create that kind of mini club idea that people really want to be a part of, rather than maybe going with an alternative brand. “
The implications are that advertisers and sponsors can leverage the same dynamics they find in games, setting similar incentives for engaging a different audience. In other ways, meanwhile, the potential of it all could be even greater.
As Two Circles co-founder and main SportsPro contributor Matt Rogan explored – both in these pages and in his book All To Play For: How Sport Can Reboot Our Future – connected exercise promises broader benefits that can help champion the cause of sport to government and other investors. From public health to urban mobility, data produced by working people offer a different view of how societies work and of the most effective solutions to long-term problems.
Commercially and culturally, major events will still have a major role to play in all of this. As Rogan writes: “Securing a place in a sold-out London Marathon is the runner’s version of nailing a Glastonbury ticket to gold dust.” And that celebratory status of effort, sacrifice, and hard-earned endorphins will endure, even if the delivery changes.
The London Marathon could be approaching a radical change – its deal on national broadcasting rights, on the one hand, is in the process of being renewed, with its historic partnership with the BBC under review. The possibilities, however, still extend far.