Chris Finill: an extraordinary ever-present
To have run every London Marathon since 1981 is an achievement worthy of praise, but to have accomplished that feat under three hours on every occasion marks Chris Finill out as a special runner indeed.
But there is a thread of consistency and application in Finill's story that offers an explanation, for the man has been a Harrow Athletics Club member since 1974 and recalls, at the age of seven, running around the family garden while his mother called out laps.
You might say he grew up in the right place to be a runner; not Kenya's Rift Valley or the Ethiopian highlands, but Whitmore Avenue, Harrow, the same road where Sir Roger Bannister spent his early years before going on to sub-four minute glory in the Mile in 1954. He even went to the same primary school.
"I had a sense that where I lived was connected with sport, even at the age of four," he says. "In a way, my mother got me to start running because I used to run to the shops and buy cigarettes for her."
Beginning with two hours 32 minutes 55 seconds in 1981, Finill's best time in London and personal best for the distance came four years later when he ran 2:28:27. Last year, at the age of 53, he finished in 2:50:32, a time many runners 30 years his junior would envy. Yet maintaining this sequence has not been his dominant focus, even as he looks towards breaking three hours for the 33rd consecutive year in London.
"I've never really trained for London specifically," he says. "It's come at the end of the cross-country season, where I run the Chiltern League, and before the track season starts.
"It's doing ultra-marathons which has made me stronger when it comes to the marathon. I can read my body. You know how things work when you have to run for 24 hours, and you also gain confidence for the marathon."
Perhaps this approach might not work for everyone, but Finill's experience when going beyond 26.2 miles has evidently strengthened his mind and body as he's matured. He first ran the legendary London to Brighton - a fraction more than 54 miles over the rolling Sussex hills - in 1997, and made his debut in the world of 24 hour racing in 2005.
A British champion at 100km and for running 24 hours, with best performances of 7:17:06 and 243km respectively, he represented England at the Commonwealth Games Ultradistance Championships in Keswick, Cumbria, in 2009. Running such long distances has made him concentrate on good technique, relying on what might seem a surprisingly low mileage of 30 to 40 miles per week.
"I try to relax and make the ground rise up to me and roll softly forward, letting the feet land softly," he explains. "I look at the track runners and they bound along whereas I move at a pitter-patter, not overstriding and trying to keep my head still."
Such attention to detail paid off when he accomplished, in the company of Steve Pope, the epic of running across the United States from New York to California in the autumn of 2011. Seventy-nine days and 22 hours of endurance didn't blunt his speed for London in 2012, but he has noticed differences in the build-up to this year's race.
"I thought I had a stress fracture of the tibia but that turned out not to be, although now I have a knee problem and am less confident for London because of it. If I didn't break three hours this time but finished, I'd still be back for 2014."
Recognised as a Guinness World Record holder for his 32 consecutive sub-three hour marathons in London, the streak only assumed significance in his mind nine years ago when another Ever-Present, Mick McGeogh, admitted he was struggling with injury and doubted if he would run. Finill offered to accompany him, however slow the pace might be.
"Mick had always beaten me. I offered to pace him, even if it meant walking, but he refused, saying he wasn't going to do it. It was only then that I really thought of keeping the sub-three streak going."
The number of Ever-Presents on the start line for last year's Virgin London Marathon was 16 compared with 42 when their group was founded in 1996. Finill is the fastest by a considerable margin, but they all share a fellowship which began on Blackheath 32 years ago.
He reflects but with little sense of regret: "If I'd trained harder when younger, I might have run faster than 2:28. Instead, I've made a virtue of being a very average runner and of my consistency. I think I'm capable of running under three hours for a long time."
He does harbour one ambition which is less likely to be realised, however.
"My first priority is to finish, then to break three hours. If I could break Patrick Makau's world record (2:03:38), then I'd retire!"
The Kenyan world record holder is unlikely to feel his time is under threat, but Finill gives the impression that he'd be happy to follow London's marathon road for as long as his smooth stride might take him.