Arts editor Phil Hewitt has just completed his 26th marathon, a 26.2-mile run through the streets of Tokyo. He’s a self-confessed marathon obsessive – a state of mind he explores in his new book, Keep On Running, the light-hearted tale of his marathons around the world. Here he talks about the delights and the agonies that marathons have brought him.
“Hello. My name is Phil, and I am an addict.
But not the kind that meets in village halls and swaps stories without ever swapping surnames.
No, my kind is a rather kinkier kind, I’m afraid to say: We like to gather, 36,000 strong, in large public places, dress up in lycra and slap plasters on our nipples.
And then, when the gun goes, we hare off on the most remarkable odyssey of exhilaration and self-flagellation known to man - those 26.2 miles of pleasure giving way to pain which are generally called a marathon.
Across 42.195 kilometres of big-city streets, Ben Hur like in our own personal chariots, we whip ourselves ever onward until we finally stumble over the finish line.
And that’s the point at which the addiction really kicks in.
All memory of the pain evaporates and, still sweaty, unsavoury and knackered, we start to wonder “Hmmm, now which one next?”
If we’ve done a good time, we’ll beat ourselves up, convinced that we didn’t take full advantage of all the factors which aligned in our favour. Did we capitalise enough? Only another marathon will tell.
If we’ve done a bad time, then we’ll beat ourselves up about letting ourselves down. “I’m better than that”, we’ll chunter. And once again, only another marathon will do.
Such is the nature of addiction.
Not that I have ever fought it. Quite the contrary It’s an obsession I am delighted to give in to, one I explore in my new book Keep On Running, published by Summersdale of Chichester, on April 2.
It was through the newspaper that I did my first marathon in 1998, running the London on behalf of Macmillan Cancer Support - a glorious day which took me to unexpected places. I’d always thought nothing could beat donning the red and blue gown of an Oxford PhD; and yet my first London Marathon medal proved infinitely the more satisfying experience.
It’s one I’ve been clinging on to ever since, across 25 more marathons, most recently in Tokyo, but also in Rome, Berlin, Dublin, Amsterdam, Mallorca, La Rochelle, Brighton and Portsmouth, among others.
For years, it became a question of running faster; in more recent years, as Anno Domini has taken its toll, it’s been much more about savouring the extremity of marathon emotions.
Nothing hurts as much as a marathon, but on the upside nothing gives as much pleasure.
I’ve always adored the Rolling Stones. Providing the soundtrack to my life, as the old cliché goes, they’ve summed up my marathons one by one. Stones songs are my chapter titles in Keep On Running.
Plundered My Soul, Paint It Black and Losing My Touch head the chapters which depict my marathon shockers; Start Me Up, Satisfaction, Don’t Stop and Street-Fighting Man capture some of the days when the pleasure outweighed the pain.
Put them all together, and I hope I have come up with a valuable look at motivation, what it is that keeps us going when we are crying out to stop; I have also tried to put it all into the context of family life and work demands. Marathons are a selfish mistress; I’ve tried not to be selfish too.
My best-ever marathon was five years ago, and I don’t realistically think I can beat it now - which is a tough realisation to come to, something else I explore in the book. But alongside that, I also look at the places that marathons have taken me to - rich consolation for the trauma of getting slower.
Marathons are a voyage of discovery at every turn. Mallorca was a remarkably-enjoyable run in a place not synonymous with marathon-running.
Paris offers surely the world’s most delightful course (alongside some absolutely dire organisation); but maybe it was New York that gave me my marathon pinnacle (or my “Harlem Shuffle” in Rolling Stones’ terms).
It was a gorgeous autumn day, the colours of Central Park were simply ravishing, and the whole of New York City, it seemed, had turned out in force to urge us on through all five boroughs. It was two years after 9/11; people were running with images of lost loved-ones on their backs; firefighters were out on the streets saluting the city which had so gratefully saluted them.
I ran it as high as a kite, as drunk on a lord, intoxicated by the spirit of the city alone - a magnificent occasion which Tokyo, at the end of February this year, came close to replicating.
I was invited out as part of a press group to a country determined to show to the world that it was back on its feet, up and running again after last year’s awful earthquakes. It was impossible not to feel deeply moved by the way that the whole city urged us on. They wanted us there. They loved having us there. And I loved being there.
I hope this book will capture some of that marathon excitement, the buzz that makes me such a willing addict. As I say in the book, marathons make you miserable, but they also give you the most unlikely and the most indescribable pleasures. I hope you’ll sample some of mine.”
Keep on Running:The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict is published by Summersdale on April 2 2012 (£8.99; ISBN: 9781849532365).