During this time of unprecedented angst and upheaval, runners are in need of some positivity – and they don’t come more cheerful or optimistic than Vassos Alexander. The radio sports presenter, author and serial marathoner has a new book out, How To Run a Marathon. We caught up with him on this week’s RW podcast to hear why he thinks everyone should run the distance at some point in their life. Here’s an abridged version of the interview:
Who is your new book aimed at?
It’s mainly aimed at people who have yet to run a marathon, and perhaps think the marathon is beyond them. I think that pretty much everybody can run a marathon. Everyone’s got a marathon in them. I’m not saying it’s easy – or that everyone’s got an easy marathon in them – but the fact it’s difficult is also kind of the point. With few exceptions, everyone listening to this, if you can get yourself round a parkrun, you can with a bit of training successfully finish a marathon.
What are some of the benefits of running a marathon?
When you’ve got a marathon finisher’s medal around your neck, from that moment for the rest of your life, you are a marathon runner. And it’s very egalitarian, isn’t it? You’d rather be a well-trained poor student living in a bedsit with just enough money for baked beans than a billionaire who hadn’t done the proper training. It’s quite simple: train hard enough and you will succeed in running the marathon.
How has the marathon changed you?
I’ve got a Greek streak in me. Well, all of me, in fact: I am Greek. So there’s always been a little bit of a hankering to do a marathon because of Pheidippides making his desperate dash from the battle in Marathon to Athens to let the Athenians know of their victory. It didn’t end well for Pheidippides [he died upon reaching Athens], but he’d had a bit of a week of it: he’s run 300 miles and probably fought in the battle. But it has that history to it. My first one was Barcelona. I loved the atmosphere and the nervous energy on the start line. I loved the fact after 18 miles, my legs said, ‘No further!’ but that I carried on. The sense of achievement at the end of your first marathon is one of the great moments in life.
What do you think is people’s biggest misconception about the marathon?
I think a lot of people think that everyone on the start line is Eliud Kipchoge, Paula Radcliffe. Haile Gebrselassie, Brigid Kosgei. And it’s absolutlely not the case. There’s all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds on the start line, and it’s an incredibly welcoming place. I remember in Barcelona, looking around the hotel before the race, I felt so intimidated by the other runners: they all looked so fit and toned and athletic. Then you start running and you realise that essentially we’re all the same; it’s us against the distance, not you against anyone else. So if the people are putting you off doing a marathon, forget that, because the marathon is a really welcoming place. I think my favourite place in the world – and the place I’m most looking forward to being back in – is the start pen of a marathon and getting that feeling of nervous excitement all around me.
Do you see the appeal of virtual marathons?
I did the Virtual London Marathon last October, on the South Downs on a stormy day. It was kind of lovely because you knew people around the country were doing the same thing at the same time, but I missed them. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to be surrounded by them. I didn’t want the occasional beep from a car. I wanted people five-deep like they are on the sides of Embankment in London. I wanted those tidal waves of good wishes. I wanted the whole hoopla. For me a virtual marathon is like sport without crowds: it’s a bit vanilla.
Tell us more about How to Run a Marathon
Part one is why everybody should run a marathon, and part two is about how everyone can. There are stories of my own marathon attempts – like when I did finally break three hours in London, but also when they’ve gone spectacularly wrong – interspersed with interviews with wonderful people like Kathryn Switzer, the first woman to run an official marathon. It’s a lot of stories that hopefully will inspire people to give it a go. Because, honestly, if you’re listening to this thinking ‘Should I run a marathon?’ the answer, 100 per cent is: yes.
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