- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The reason a marathon is 26.2 miles is because, at the 1908 London Olympics, the course planners wanted to end the race in front of Queen Alexandra's seat in the stadium. Until then, marathons varied in length, from 25 to 26 miles or so. The London route was 26 miles, and legend has it that, to get the race to end by the Queen, the planners wound up adding two-tenths of a mile to the total.
I knew there was a reason I resent royalty.
As I near the end of the 2012 Olympic marathon course, my aching hips, sore calves and nagging Achilles are cursing Queen Alexandra -- and I'm only running a portion of the route. Although given that the extra mileage on my run is thanks to getting repeatedly lost along the route, I can only blame myself for not bringing a much more detailed map.
The site for most venues at the 2012 Games is Olympic Park in east London, which is such a bland and unappealing location that the most notable attraction volunteers mention is a temporary McDonald's they proudly proclaim as the world's largest.
Thus, to get a real taste of London, I decided to run the marathon route, a 26.2-mile stretch of English history that will challenge a camera's memory capacity as much as the body.
Breaking with Olympic marathon tradition that usually ends the race in the main stadium, the 2012 route begins and ends in the heart of London. There are three eight-mile laps of the city that trace some of its greatest sights, plus an extra 2.2-mile loop that includes Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.
Plus, there are a number of very appealing pubs. After all, hydration is crucial during a marathon.
"I try and really enjoy the first 20 miles of the race," American marathoner Ryan Hall emailed me. "During these miles I will be taking in the epic sites we will be running past and more than anything, taking in all the crazy energy that will be on the course. I've had the pleasure of running the London Marathon twice before and the crowds both times were epic and extremely enthusiastic. There were parts on the course (like crossing Tower Bridge) that I could not help but accelerate as a result of running past the frenzied crowd that was five to eight people deep at parts. If the crowd is that huge for the London Marathon I cannot imagine what it will be like for the Olympic Games.
"I think the twisty, narrow course will only elevate the electric atmosphere that I will have the honor to run past."
There will be crowds five to eight people deep for my run, but, alas, they won't be fans cheering me on, just workers and tourists blocking my way as they walk to the office or wander from attraction to attraction.>
Earlier in the Olympics, we had recorded a tongue-in-cheek video of the route, but to really appreciate what it is like, I decided I needed to run the route in one go, or at least one lap. I'm no runner, but I figured I could handle an eight-mile run through London, just as long as I remembered to look the correct way when crossing the street. (Fortunately, London paints arrowed directions on the pavement for which way to look when crossing, which makes me wonder how many tourists have been run over by double-decker buses.)
I don a helmet camera and begin, the "Chariots of Fire" theme playing in my head and the smell of sweat-stained shorts filling my nostrils.
The route starts a couple hundred meters from Buckingham Palace and heads east past Trafalgar Square until it hits the Thames. Then it turns right, continues along the river to Big Ben, winds past Westminster Abbey and back to the start. Then it sets off again, but, when it hits the Thames this time, the route turns left and follows the river along the Victoria Embankment.
I sweep along this route, taking in the historic sights invigorating enough to make me feel as if I'm floating above the road with an umbrella, Mary Poppins-like. My pace, I fear, is also Julie Andrews- like.
After accidentally running past the proper street crossing, I climb a low wall and dash across a busy arterial (Look left! Look left!), then head up a slight slope toward St. Paul's Cathedral.
Completed in 1710, St. Paul's is the masterpiece of architect Christopher Wren. It became the symbol of London's resistance during World War II when it survived the German bombs night after deadly night of the Blitz. Seeing this inspiring church during the marathon should almost be considered a performance enhancer.
So I was feeling strong as I curved around St. Paul's, and also a little cocky about my knowledge of London. Unfortunately, this is where the route gets tricky, twisting through a neighborhood filled with confusing but marvelously named streets and locations such as Eastcheap, Pudding Mill Lane, Puddle Dock, East Poultry Street, Threadneedle Street, Fish Street Hill, Wormwood Street and, for all I know, Breaking Wind Passage.
After backtracking and repeatedly asking for directions, I eventually find myself back on the route at Leadenhall Market, a covered market that dates to the 1300s. More importantly, this is where Harry Potter purchases his supplies for Hogwarts in the first movie. I don't see the Leaky Cauldron pub, though, either because I'm a Muggle or because I'm now too concerned about finishing the run in time to get to the women's gymnastics team competition.
I emerge from the market and continue on to the Tower of London, where the route heads back and where Anne Boleyn was beheaded. This reminds me to check my helmet cam, and, when I do, I find to my horror that it has stopped working. Great. I have no idea when it stopped, but I power it back on, worried that I will have to run two laps.
This is a concern because, as the route returns along the Thames, my hips and calves begin to really ache. Since I started cycling several years ago, I haven't run any distance longer than from the press box to the press dining room, and nearly eight miles on unforgiving city pavement has taken its toll.
In our video, I pretend to be out of breath, but my lungs are fine. It's my lower body that needs a massage. Or at least a pint of ale at The Torn Hamstring.
But at least I'm almost home. As I pass the magnificent Big Ben, I see I have covered all but the final mile or so of the route in just over an hour. The marathoners will have run more than half the race in that time (their pace is absolutely inhuman), although, in my defense, they won't have to wait for green lights or check for double-decker buses whizzing down the left side of the road.
They also won't have to repeatedly pull out a sweat-soaked map and try to figure out where they are. As I do yet again when, more than a mile later -- as Big Big tolls and with absolutely no sign of Buckingham Palace or the finish line in sight -- I realize that I am lost once more.