Steve Cram CBE still holds the European and British records for the mile – but it’s 26.2 miles he’s focusing on this week, as he prepares to commentate on the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon. Here he reflects on his own marathon experiences, how the London Marathon has transformed the image of running – and how the Official Race app, powered by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), is making a difference.
As a teenager pounding the streets of North East England in the late Seventies, Steve Cram was seen as a “weirdo” and verbally abused for doing what he loved.
“If you were running around the streets of South Tyneside in the winter, you had kids laughing at you and sometimes throwing things at you, shouting ‘Get them knees up!’ and all that sort of thing,” says the Olympic medallist and TCS London Marathon ambassador.
He credits the London Marathon, which began in 1981, with “single-handedly” changing people’s opinions of running in the UK.
“Nowadays, if you don’t go out running or do exercise, you’re not a weirdo, but you’re not in the majority,” he says. “Millions of people every year take part in everything from 5km runs to marathons and beyond and it builds communities, it gives people a sense of belonging.”
Besides shifting perceptions about running as a sport, in the past four decades, the London Marathon has also raised more than £955 million for charity, not to mention boosting the fitness and mental health of those taking part.
“There’s a personal thing at all sorts of levels, from fitness to challenge to raising money, but there is this wider societal glue that we’ve lost a bit of, that mass participation events have replaced,” adds Cram. “People help complete strangers to get around. You are part of something big and good and you’re doing something together.”
Tech-ing it steady
The running landscape has changed in other ways since Cram was a teen. When he reached the final of the 1500m at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, at just 19, there was little technology to help runners train and improve.
“I’ve never thought of running as a technology sport, but now it’s part and parcel of how people do their training,” says the 58-year-old, who currently coaches middle-distance Olympic athlete Laura Weightman. “And we use tech to follow people on the day too.”
For the friends and family coming to support the marathon runners, the Official 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon app is now essential for keeping track of where they are.
“I used to go and watch the Great North Run and plan it like a military exercise because of road closures. But with thousands of people, you still just had to cross your fingers and hope you’d see your friend,” says Cram.
“Whereas now, you can see in real time how they’re progressing, and if you want to cheer them on at different points, you can plan it. And if you’re just sitting at home, you can see if they’ve got around safely.”
Cram saw first-hand what it takes to run the London Marathon when he helped Macmillan Cancer Support recruit runners in the early 1990s.
He was still competing as a middle-distance runner, so he didn’t take part – seeing himself as “a 1500m runner, not a marathon runner” – but he met those running for the charity at a party the night before and then stood on The Mall to cheer people across the finish line.
“That’s where you see the incredible stories: people on their knees, just dragging themselves those last few yards, really struggling to get across that finishing line. Up to that point in my running life, I’d just hung around the elite – but that day I saw why people want to do things like this.”
It inspired him to “get off his backside”, and, after retiring from international athletics in 1995, Cram took part in two London Marathons, once running as part of the commentary team for the BBC with a brick-like mobile phone and battery packs strapped to his back.
“Those two years of running gave me a great insight into the race, which has helped a lot with commentary because you know the course and where people feel challenged, like on the Embankment, when you see Big Ben in the distance – and it never seems to get closer!”
All eyes on Mo
Cram will be back in the BBC commentary box this Sunday – and says we’ve got a real treat in store as Mo Farah takes on his second London Marathon.
“Mo is the biggest star we’ve had in British athletics for a long time. He’s had a successful move to marathons up to this point, but this is going to be a big test for him now. He finished third last year with a well-measured performance, but there’ll be a little bit more expectation on him.”
Farah was beaten by the “best of all time” Eliud Kipchoge in 2018 and now they’re going head-to-head again: “We’ll be hoping Mo can step up to that challenge.”
Whether they’re in the elite race or running for charity, all the marathon runners will be keeping an eye on the weather, says Cram, and hoping for mild dry conditions.
Anything above 20 degrees becomes an issue for hydration, so Cram recommends sticking to the old adage of “little and often” for drinking water: “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty”.
He also says: “Respect the distance of it. If you’ve done your training, you’ll be fine, as long as you don’t get carried away. Don’t do anything too different in the last few days, don’t change your diet or your shoes, go with what’s been normal for you up to this point.”
Give it a go
For those watching the London Marathon this year, allow it to inspire you. There are plenty of reasons to dip your toe into the sport, says Cram, who’s thankful running has come a long way from those Seventies jibes.
“We all have stressful lives, but if I’m running, I cope with it a lot easier. I travel the world commentating now and just being able to put on a pair of shoes in a city on the other side of the world or going to a park, it’s just such a great stress-reliever.
“Some of my happiest times have been running in the middle of nowhere. We don’t live too far from Kielder Forest, in Northumberland, and I can be up there, running in complete and utter silence on the forest trail and see a deer. You enjoy your surroundings and you just enjoy running.”
Support your friends, family or favourite elite runners using the hashtag #ThisRun and track their progress using the 2019 Official Virgin Money London Marathon app, powered by Tata Consultancy Services. The app also provides an interactive course map and allows you to make donations to the runners’ chosen charity.
Find the app here:
Apple App Store