The medical marathon; a piece to mark the #LondonMarathon2014

What is, I wonder, the equivalent of Noel Coward’s lyric ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,’ which might encapsulate the phenomenon that is the Virgin Money London Marathon?

This morning tens of thousands of runners will set out from Greenwich Park as they do every year with high hopes of finishing two, three, four or more hours later at Buckingham Palace.  It will be the 34th London Marathon.

People from all ‘runs of life’ including patients, carers, doctors, nurses researchers, scientists and charity fun-runners will have trained long and hard these past few months so that they can take to the Capital’s streets and know that, with every pounding foot, money is being raised for their favourite cause. And medical research dominates those causes.

It is difficult to say precisely how much of the £660 Million raised for charity since the London Marathon started in 1984 has gone to medical research.  But my reckoning is that, out of 54 charities who have been honoured to be the official London charity of the year since then, 20 have been medical research charities.  The British Heart Foundation leads the pack having been chosen four times, the Anthony Nolan Trust is not far behind.  Including this year, it has been the official London Marathon charity on three occasions.  There’s a page dedicated to the history of the London Marathon and its links to charities which is worth a look if you are interested.

The first of these medical research charities was the Middlesex Hospital Research Fund in 1986, the hospital being notable for being a significant cancer research centre then and now I believe. Also, for being where I was born!

There are many, many more charities who simply enter runners into the event of course.  I calculated that, of the 91 who I assume pay for the honour of being included on the main listing provided by Virgin Money, 38 are known for their work in supporting medical research.  Yet this only skims the surface.  Trawl further through the A-Z listing and many household names pop up who also do much to fund medical research.  And who knows how many local research charities barely merit a mention beyond their local newspaper if that.

And what of the runners themselves?  I have a feint recollection of turning up at Trafalgar Square in 1993 or 1994, and being marshalled by the wonderful Paula Dawes – the Alzheimer’s Society’s then head of fundraising who did more for staff and volunteer motivation with her gigantic fundraising thermometer on the wall than any excel spread-sheet produced for a committee – to cheer on just over 20 runners on a dreary Sunday morning.  Last year, the number of people running for the Alzheimer’s Society was nearer 400 I believe.  That seems a pretty incredible rise in the numbers.

The links to medical research do not end there.  For 31 out of the last 34 years, there has been a London Marathon Medicine Conference which looks at the medicine and science of marathon running.  It is also proving to be a teaching and research opportunity for sports scientist students.  However, I would be interested in knowing whether anyone has published a scientific paper about, or run a clinical trial involving, London Marathon runners?  Forgive me for not knowing that, if there has been.  Perhaps the only thing we lack is a few more significant medical research landmarks along the route; The Crick in 2016?  It might be one for the public engagement team there to think about.

Philosophically I wonder whether there is something deeper that draws together the modern penchant for running marathons and our commitment to, or support for, medical research?  The metaphor of the marathon certainly serves us well in health conjuring up images of commitment, camaraderie and the joy of reaching the finishing line.

For example, my good friend and colleague, Derek Stewart, has written before about the similarities between his progress as a runner and his journey in public involvement in research.  I also remember from my time at the Alzheimer’s Society an article written by a carer, comparing the years spent tending for their loved-one to that of running a marathon.  It became a very popular piece among fellow carers and supporters.  How many times have we also heard scientists and researchers talk about the long process from scientific discovery to viable treatment of therapy?

For this writer (and I am not a runner) the act of doing a marathon is a symbolic nod of respect, a doffing of the cap or handshake of support, in recognition of what it takes to live with ill-health and to find a remedy.

And we shouldn’t forget that the London Marathon is just one of many such events that take place up and down the country throughout the year – a good few in the park behind my house in South London – where people are going that extra mile for research.  Indeed, considering  the UK is second only to the Netherlands (70% versus 78%) in Europe terms of the number of people saying they have donated money to fundraising campaigns for research – the Europe-wide figure is 39% – that’s one gutsy performance by our marathon runners.

It also reinforces what I think is the key message that emerges from the recent IPSOS Mori/Department for Business Public Attitudes to Science report [by the way this is a superlative piece by Alice Bell in The Guardian about itHe blog is worth checking out too] . Namely, that you may be able to make an argument that the British public’s understanding of science leaves much to be desired.  But you can’t fault their gut instinct in support of it.  And what better symbol of that, than their staying the course over 26.2 miles.

Good luck to them all.  And, if any should be reading this afterwards while nursing aching limbs and sore feet, thank you.



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