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Monday, 22 October, 2018

Magical marathon provides everyone with a fantastic run for their money

The Thursday column

The London Marathon: fun, fundraising, fantastic
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At a time when organisers of sporting events push the boundaries of what the public is prepared to pay ever closer to the limit, it is a relief to know there are still a couple of superb viewing experiences that do not cost a penny.

The first of them took place on Sunday when, under gloriously sunny skies, the London Marathon broke two records - the hottest running and the most participants.

It is an event that can be enjoyed from the bed or the sofa thanks to the BBC’s brilliant coverage, which captures every angle of this phenomenally diverse run perfectly.

The competitive contests are given due attention but the fun, the pain and the wonderful stories of fundraising are also accorded all the airtime they deserve.

However, if you really want to feel the true magic of the marathon - and it’s something that even my overproductive cynicism gland cannot prevent me finding totally uplifting - jump on a train and hit the streets. You won’t regret it.

The atmosphere is simply brilliant. I strolled from the north side of Blackfriars Bridge to Waterloo Bridge and stopped every so often to look across the railings as the runners streamed past. These were mostly the half-decent types with ambitions to dip well under the four-hour barrier.

They had three- and four-figure numbers on their vests, many of which were emblazoned with the name of their running club, and all the right kind of gear. Also in the parade were the speedier people who were aiming to raise money for good causes plus the odd bloke in a wedding dress.

But with only a couple of miles to go the heat was biting. A few had a look of elation on their faces as they realised the end was in sight, but others looked like they were plodding through a living hell, with grimaces etched on most faces.

I’m not sure how many fewer finishers there would have been without the crowds to help them home but my guess would be considerable. Every so often someone would heed the pleas from their body to stop, but then people would yell encouragement and they would return to a jog with rapturous cheers ringing in their ears.

If you had your name written on the front of your vest you were guaranteed a 26-mile chorus of “come on Ralph” or “come on Dave”, and if you dressed in anything remotely resembling fancy dress you got a special cheer too.

Most sporting events take money and keep it. The marathon earns it and gives it to people and organisations who need it. Every so often a group of people associated with a particular charity would pitch camp against the railings and offer support. They would wear the same brightly coloured T-shirts. Diabetes, childhood cancers, save this animal and that animal.

There they all were, enjoying the sunshine and bellowing encouragement to everyone but with particular gusto when one of their own runners came into view.

More than £45m was raised for worthy causes on Sunday, a fantastic sum.

I wanted to stay all day and watch as the current brought with it the fun runners, the serious fancy dressers, the Grenfell firefighters and the stragglers, but there were things to do so finally it was time to move away from the procession of pain and glory, the joyous sound of cheering, drums and DJs fading as I returned to the real world with gladness in my heart.

I’d love to run a marathon because it is such an achievement, but I’m too old and too lazy and it’s too far, so instead I shall settle for an annual cheerleading role.

There is less cheering in the other great free sporting event taking place soon but do not let that deter you, should time and geography allow, from turning up at Walton Heath on June 4 for the British qualifying competition for the US Open.

It’s free and it’s fantastic. A load of top tour pros will be playing 36 holes with the top finishers making it to Shinnecock Hills for the second Major of the year.

You park up and simply find a group you want to follow and tag along. And when you tag along in this case you are much closer to the action than at tour events because there are no ropes and no marshals.

You’re wandering along on the fairways right behind the players and their caddies. It’s a tremendous experience and, unlike the marathon, you don’t feel exhausted just watching them.

One slight moan to end with. The elite marathon races don’t look great these days, with a tiny number of main contenders setting off surrounded by a phalanx of pacemakers all wearing black and white striped vests.

I’m not saying the protagonists should run the early stages in the company of people done out as Michelin Men or nuns but it just looks a bit clinical.

Sessegnon looks ready to take on the world

Since Glenn Hoddle caused a sensation with his squad selection for the 1998 World Cup, with the omission of Gazza rocking the football world on its axis, England have taken 11 teenagers to the Euros or the World Cup.

Should you fancy a little quiz, I’ll avoid naming any of them until the end of the piece.

Gareth Southgate was part of the 1998 squad that included two of the 11 and he, like the rest of us, will not have forgotten the massive impact one of them had on the tournament.

But whether those memories influence him when it comes to naming his 23 for Russia is open to question.

There are four teenagers who should at the least have crossed his mind fleetingly when considering who to take: Ryan Sessegnon, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho.

It would be a shock if any of them got the nod and as far as Alexander-Arnold, Foden and Sancho are concerned it is probably wise to pencil them in for Qatar 2022 and hope they continue to progress, but the case for taking Sessegnon is extremely strong, even though 17-year-olds playing in the Sky Bet Championship do not normally get called up for World Cups.

Sessegnon will be old enough to drink on May 18 and he’s already old enough and, more importantly, good enough, to play a part in the World Cup based on what he has produced for Fulham this season.

Southgate plans to deploy wing-backs and that only makes Sessegnon an even wiser pick because he is made for the role.

It’s not like England are brimming with high-calibre left-backs. Ryan Bertrand, Danny Rose and Ashley Young are the likeliest candidates, but none has been especially marvellous this season and if Sessegnon is not better than all three now, which he might well be, he will almost certainly be soon so it is worth giving him a ticket to Russia and seeing what he can do.

The 11 teenage England squad members to have gone to a major tournament in the last 20 years would actually make a decent team, albeit a rather lopsided one: Butland, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ferdinand, Barry, Shaw, Rooney, Rashford, Walcott, Owen, Sterling, Lennon.

ECB on a sticky wicket with The Hundred

It is still difficult, even with a few days to digest the announcement, to comprehend how utterly imbecilic the England and Wales Cricket Board’s new competition, known as The Hundred, truly is.

The format, in case you missed it, is an eight-team competition featuring matches comprising innings that last for 15 six-ball overs and then a ten-ball over, for no apparent reason other than to create the 100-ball knocks that are deemed important.

The obvious question, of course, is why not just adapt the T20 format that has been such an outstandingly brilliant idea that it is not the slightest exaggeration to say it is the saviour of cricket?

By tweaking the genius notion of T20 in such a pointlessly subtle way the ECB has managed to make one of the most difficult sports for the uninitiated to grasp even more of a challenge, with an unnecessary fourth format that will serve no purpose at all.

Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive officer, said: “This is a fresh and exciting idea which will appeal to a younger audience and attract new fans to the game.”

He’s wrong. It isn’t fresh - merely a slight variation on T20 and therefore it isn’t exciting either. And if anyone is going to embrace cricket because they like this particular version than its superior T20 brother I will be staggered.

The ECB came up with one of the all-time great sporting innovations when they created T20. Their follow-up brainwave is woeful by comparison.


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Most sporting events take money and keep it. The marathon earns it and gives it to people and organisations who need it
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