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Thursday 16th May 2013 | 20:00
On April 21 seven of Parliament’s hardiest souls lined up in Greenwich Park to take on 26.2 miles of road-pounding pain. Thankfully all of them survived to tell The House their London Marathon highlights.
The intrepid (or foolhardy) parliamentarians certainly did not have it easy preparing for the big day, battling through bugs, viruses (Ed Balls), drunkards on the streets of Glasgow (Jim Murphy) and the bane of many a marathon-runner – shin splints (Murphy again). All of this alongside having to do a significant chunk of training in one of the chilliest winters in years.
Colne Valley MP Jason McCartney battled manfully through his training schedule, but even he had to shelve one jog when the pavements were piled high with snow.
All of the MPs struggled to juggle their parliamentary work with the demands of a full training programme. Murphy and Alun Cairns both said they ended up on training runs well past midnight, while Nicky Morgan had to squeeze in training in the early mornings before work.
Barnsley Central’s Dan Jarvis admits to having found it “impossible” to fit in a proper training programme around his other commitments. Luckily for him he has 10 years as a paratrooper to draw on – and he still managed to come in the third fastest MP with a creditable 3h 45 finish.
Being recognised on the streets seems to have been a mixed blessing –Tory MP Alun Cairns describes his Barry constituents’ horn-pumping as “very encouraging”, while some of Murphy’s late night jaunts meant running into freshly turfed-out drinkers shouting obscenities about the Pope – a feature of Glasgow’s unique political microclimate, he quips.
For Balls, donning the bright yellow running gear was a rare chance to go incognito.
“If you wear yellow gloves and a grey hat people think it’s just another crazy runner so my strategy is just to keep my hat on, I wear a fluorescent hat and gloves round Regent’s Park and no one ever recognises who I am. People don’t tend to connect fluorescent hats, gloves and tights with politicians.”
On the day, most of the MPs say the crowd were a source of inspiration, except perhaps for Murphy, who confesses to getting more riled the longer the race went on.
“Initially everyone who shouted ‘come on Jim!’ I said ‘thank you’ to – I thought it was polite. But the last 10 miles I wanted to shout back ‘what the bloody hell do you think I’m doing? I’m trying my hardest!’”
Balls also got a bit of flak from one spectator when he tried to take a breather. “At about mile 18 I did stop for a walk for a bit and some guy yelled ‘Come on Ed Balls, get on with it you wuss!’”
Murphy cannot have too many complaints, however, as he came in the fastest MP by a fair distance, pipping Cairns and Jarvis to finish in just over 3h 30. He still has some way to go to beat Commons record-holder Matthew Parris, who managed an Olympian 2h 32 back in the 1985 race.
Whatever their times, each of the MPs did a sterling job of fundraising, with donations coming from some surprising sources – George Osborne and Nick Clegg both sponsored their political tormentor Balls, while David Cameron, William Hague and “most of the Cabinet” sponsored Murphy.
Even the famously combative Balls agrees that “running the marathon and raising money for these charities completely transcends any issues of party politics”.
Alun Cairns was particularly pleased with the generosity of the Tory Whips.
“I had a good number of donations from other MPs, even from some whips, including the Chief Whip, Sir George [Young], and some of the other whips. Bearing in mind they will get requests on behalf of so many causes from various MPs, people have been exceptionally generous.”
But all the runners reserve the highest praise for their constituents and members of the public who chipped in. Jarvis, who was raising money for Cancer Research UK, had a particularly touching encounter when he was spotted walking around Barnsley.
“I was walking through the town centre and this bloke came up to me and said ‘my mum died of cancer, here’s 25 quid for the marathon’. I’d never met this bloke before, he just walked up to me, thrust it into my hand. It’s kind of hard to know what to say.”
While all of the MPs ran for organisations close to their hearts, it was particularly personal for the Shadow Culture Minister, whose first wife passed away from bowel cancer in 2010.
Despite the camaraderie among MPs of all stripes, the race does seem to have provoked a few rivalries. Balls says the “absolute highlight” of the day for him was finding out that Murphy was in “no fit state” to go on Sky News after crossing the finishing line.
“The fact that I moved seamlessly and gracefully into a live Sky interview was compensation for his faster and fitter time,” the Shadow Chancellor jokes.
Jarvis also has a warning for the Shadow Defence Secretary – “Jim played a canny political game and I think was better prepared than me…but let’s just say if we line up together in the future it might be a closer race.”
If there is a contest, Tory MP Graham Evans (4.49.00) is firmly on the side of Murphy, a regular team-mate at parliamentary five-a-side football. “Jim’s as fit as a butcher’s dog, my money’s on Jim”. Perhaps he has not reckoned with the athleticism of Jarvis, whom Balls calls “the Bionic Man”.
And what has the hectic pace of political life taught them about the long, hard slog of endurance running?
Loughborough’s Tory MP Nicky Morgan, who finished just behind Balls in 5h 15, can definitely see some similarities.
“You have to be reasonably fit to keep going in politics because it’s quite a demanding job and I think they both share the need for persistence, you have to have an end goal in sight and keep working towards that,” she says.
For Jason McCartney getting geared up for the marathon was reminiscent of the long, hard struggle to get selected for a run at Parliament.
“Being a candidate for three-and-a-half years while trying to hold down a job, having all the casework starting to come in before I’d got an office and having to do it all myself, that was very, very hard. But if you set your mind to something, be positive, and work hard there’s no reason you can’t be successful.”
Evans compares it with securing his marginal constituency in 2010: “You don’t win a seat like Weaver Vale overnight, you have to plan and prepare very hard, what’s the saying... it’s a marathon not a sprint.”
Perhaps surprisingly, all the MPs say they will at least consider giving the race another go. Balls is determined to break the five hour mark, while Jarvis has that tete-a-tete with Murphy to consider.
In what some might call an act of masochism, Murphy is also contemplating taking on the Cateran Yomp – a 52 mile, 24 hour race in the Perthshire highlands – in mid-June, to raise money for the Army Benevolent Fund.
When it comes to getting their nearest and dearest involved, views are mixed. Evans says his wife and six-year-old daughter Sophie are now enthusiastic converts, but Balls says Yvette Cooper is “implacably opposed” to ever running a marathon (“she think it’s too far for anybody to run”). Cairns also says securing his wife’s agreement is crucial to him running a third successive marathon in 2014.
And any putative runners should bear in mind Balls’ number one tip for next year, courtesy of the Children’s Minister.
“My advice to future House of Commons marathon runners is to take seriously the advice of Edward Timpson who is an experienced marathon runner.
“He said take a bit of Ibuprofen before you start, to deal with the inflammation. I didn’t take his advice last year but I did this year, I definitely adopted the Edward Timpson marathon plan and it worked.”
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