One of the benefits of living in Bermondsey is that, once a year, I’m woken up by the baying crowds lining the streets of the London Marathon. The running, the running: here we go again. I haven’t missed a marathon for the last twenty years, so I thought I’d chuck on my ancient Amsterdam Marathon 2010 t-shirt (once neon red, now a rather anemic pink) and trot down. Bask in the nostalgia. All glory to it, all things I am and own are because of the London Marathon.
By the time I was on Jamaica Road, all of the real contenders were long gone. Everyone running was very earnest, but too lumpy. Definite losers, perhaps fatally so. You cannot enter people like this into the marathon, not these days. Lumpy, lumpen pure-flesh as far as the eye could see. But the atmosphere was pleasant, rich with unjustified optimism, so I bought an ice-cream. I examined the different charity banners being waved as the ice-cream melted in my hand. Oxfam, Cancer Research, Climate Aid – mainly the big teams, with a few new faces. I saw a couple of grimacing middle-aged men who were running for a charity ‘To End the Suffering of Marathon Runners’. And that put a smile on my face, so I bought a hot-dog too, just to fit in.
As I walked up to Tower Bridge, I remembered what it’d felt like to reach the 13 mile mark. The irrational joy of feeling like you’ve reached a mountain’s peak, followed by the depressing realization that there is no downhill. As I walked at my leisurely pace I saw a Toilet station for the runners, then 400m later a Shower Station they ran through, then 400m later a Water and Banana Station. Like a long, drawn-out version of my morning routine – or what it should’ve been like, at least. I imagined that in 400m we’d see Teeth-Brushing, perhaps followed up by a Don’t Forget Your Keys Station.
I would’ve delighted more at these musings of mine, were it not for The Sweeper. I must’ve joined the procession later than I’d thought, and The Sweeper was already picking people off at the back. The crowds were chanting: ‘Run! Run! Run! Run!’ in a monotone more morose than motivational. Everybody knew it was no use: stragglers would go under. And why would the world be watching if they didn’t? Does anybody watch the Swiss marathon, where I hear they’ve done away with The Sweeper, and they just let the slow contestants walk the pain off? Or the East Asian marathon, where they go for quantity, not quality?
No, people tune in to see 5m-long rotary blades harvesting the weak. You don’t need to be a top TV exec to work that one out. I don’t blame the unfortunates who go under, it’s the charity teams’ fault for putting them there in the first place. But the contestants wouldn’t have had much of a life without The Marathon, and in the end it’s all for a good cause. I’ve seen the calculations: without the cull, fewer would be saved.
Still, sad to see all that banana go to waste.
News spread that The Sweeper had accelerated, giving a healthy boost of terror to the all-flesh runners on Tower Bridge. On the northern bank of the river I left them to continue their race to the east, and turned to the more competitive runners on their 21st mile running west. I was just in time to see the last wave of all-bots. These were the runts, but they were still zooming along – a motley gaggle of mechanical oddities. Mostly humanoid, but some trackbots, cyclobots, tripodbots – even a little chimpbot, scampring down Upper Thames Street. Most bots are now completely autonomous of course, but a few, bless them, were still being controlled remotely. A couple of the bots came to a halt and powered down as they – or their controllers – realised they now had zero probability of winning (and engineers would inevitably be fired). I overheard someone saying that a Diabetes Eradication spiderbot had won in 45:06. An impressive time, ‘even for a bot’, as they say.
I was very lucky to see the leading pack of the mixed-flesh race. I would’ve loved to have kept up with the all-bots, but I’m getting old, and I’ll take mixed-flesh over all-flesh any day of the week. It’s always good to review the latest packages in action. When I was starting off, humans had only just started to remove their limbs to replace them with wheels, spring-blades, coils – then all types of crazy, inventive gadgetry followed. The bionic arms race (but mainly for legs). Nowadays it’s very risky for charities to depart from the successful racing form, so the changes are more subtle, but you can still spot them if you know where to look. I saw that one of the racers had some sort of slipstream-accentuating vent just where his thigh should’ve been. Another had a metal plate on his skull, poorly hidden by a curly-haired wig, surely the effect of the new pain-reducing neuro-implant. ‘No pain, no gain’ – it no longer applies.
As the racers – each of them now sporting technology worth about £4 mil – rocketed down into the Blackfriars Underpass, I reminisced on my first London marathon. I’d finished in the top 500. Times had been simpler: both my utter exhaustion and modest pride had been all-natural, all-flesh. My 5-year-old son, Jimmy, had tugged at my aching legs and said to me, “Well done dad… but did you see the Kenyans, out at front, they were like lightning!” And there couldn’t have been anything I wanted to hear about less than lightning-fast Kenyans. Not on my day. I’d acted to Jimmy as if I didn’t care about winning. Good Incentive Memory, of course.
The stakes raised exponentially over the years. The charities got more and more competitive, rules more and more brutal. Now, if you don’t win your race, your charity gets nothing. How else are they meant to keep things competitive? And if you lose – and I saw a few mixed-flesh racers lose just by Westminster Palace – this means The Sweeper. And when you’re running, do you think for a second about the morals or the money? Of course not; you just run.
And there’s nothing so good in the world.
I finally came to St. James Park, behind the finishing line, where hundreds of bots were resting, or being serviced, or just stretching themselves out in the midday sun. A few humanoid bots looked my way, murmured to each other, and then sheepishly approached me.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” one of them asked, before whirring and buzzing in a rather cute manner.
“Yes,” I replied. And then I got out my pen, because I knew he was going to ask-
“Can I have your autograph?”
“Well I guess so.” I flexed my precision digits and applied by autograph algorithm to the paper. Soon all of his friends were sniffing around me, sticking their noses into my pneumatics and my blades.
“If it wasn’t for you,” he continued, “none of us would be able to earn our freedom. What did it feel like, that time you won, to be the first all-bot to win a marathon?”
I realised that I was still holding that hotdog I’d picked up an hour ago, just to fit in. It seemed sort of silly now. I dropped it on the floor.
And I looked around myself in the park. The flowers were out in bloom, just like I’d remembered them from before. But what I remembered was not from the year that I actually won and earned my freedom. I remembered that time with 5-year-old Jimmy, him tugging at my aching leg – an event which I’d later learnt had been entirely fabricated and programmed into my motivational matrix in order to make me a faster runner. ‘Jimmy’ had ‘died’, become my Incentive Memory, my reason to run. But it was that episode which I remembered earlier, as I do again right now. “Well done dad” – and I ignored the rest. “Well done.”