Running for George

The late, very great George Best

So, just 48 hours until the Paris Half Marathon. I would like to be able to say that I am looking forward to running it but in truth it is a cup from which I would prefer not to drink.

I have been getting the dream, you see, the Marathoner’s Dream in which you run the race but take a wrong turning and find yourself locked in the office bathroom or peering over your shoulder at a molten river of lava as it tears down the side of Mount Vesuvius (which is of course just to the left of the Eiffel Tower) towards you.

Cold sweat, waking in the night, feeling exhausted when you wake up because of the effort involved in running the sub-conscious half-marathon. The worst thing about these dreams is that you never finish the course, you never stagger across the line, collect your medal and suck on an obligingly cold beer in celebration. The dream never ends like that. It ends in distraction: a plumber starts to question you about your blocked drain, Condeleeza Rice (what is that all about?) waves at you from the crowd, your wife nudges you in the ribs and tells you to stop snoring. Consequently, this sub-conscious inability to finish the race creates  a conscious fear that you cannot finish.

And that, I suppose, is what most of us fear. It is not the winning that counts – that is the preserve of the 20 or so elite athletes who train day and night – and it is not even the fear that you won’t run a personal best. Most of the 30,000 athletes will have trained hard and well for the race but for the first-timers, the non-club runners the main concern is: Will I finish?

A decade ago, I ran three full marathons, twice in London and once in Athens. I had the same concerns then. But I remember David Bedford talking about the distance and saying that anyone has it in them to complete the distance, it was merely a question of how quickly you did it. The key being not to put pressure on yourself to run a certain time because the body reacts in its own way. First-timers have no idea how it will perform so don’t set unreasonable targets.

My target for Paris is to finish. The organisers reckon it will take two hours 50 minutes for the last runners to cross the line. I hope to be in before then, indeed I would like to be in around 2:10 although there is a nasty uphill from the 16k mark which could be the equivalent of the wall.

My wife, of course, thinks I am bonkers.

“You’re fat and your fifty,” she said. “It will flipping kill you.”

She said the same things ten years ago (obviously it was “You’re fat and you’re forty” back then) when I first ran the London Marathon and I survived that – so I hope she is wrong again this time.


The aspect that nags me is the short training programme I have had for this race. I contacted the organisers in November to see if they could give me a media place – I was too late to apply through the regular channels.

I did begin training in December, running three or four times a week, extending the distance and time. I hadn’t heard anything by Christmas – and training went out of the window. In came Christmas pudding, chocolate, beer and so on. That continued through January.

My call up came in early February, a note to see if I was still interested in running the half marathon. My bluff had been called. I had to say yes.

And so the training began again. It has been reasonably intense, four or five runs a week, again increasing in length. My longest was last Saturday when I was out on the tracks and hills around Palaiseau for just over two hours. It hurt. I wanted another long run on Monday or Tuesday but unfortunately, problems with the plumbing (in the apartment, not mine) curtailed training this last week.

Am I ready to run 21ks on Sunday? The honest answer is no, not really. Will I run 21ks on Sunday? Yes, yes I will.


One motivating factor is that a number of generous people have already signed up to sponsor me as I try to raise some cash for the George Best Foundation, the charity set up to commemorate the great Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballer. The charity aims to help young people avoid problems like alcoholism by getting them into sport and it also contributes to the research into alcohol-related diseases.

In the past I have run for Lepra and the Ben Hollioake Foundation, both of which are great causes. This time I wanted to do something for George. I met him a few times when my wife (then girlfriend) was working at his local, the Phene Arms in Chelsea.

George would sit in his corner with a white wine spritzer and chat with whomever was there, a soft voice and piercing eyes. I was writing for The Times in those days and was always conscious of the fact that he might think I was trying to tap him up for a story if I cosied up to him. So I kept a distance, not wanting to impinge on his space. We chatted about football a few times, usually while watching Match of the Day on a Saturday night but we never got deeper than that.

I remember his concern one night when the snooker player Alex Higgins came staggering in. He was in a bad way, he looked wan and thin as a stick. I didn’t recognise him at first. George played the role of comforter superbly, talking Higgins down until Jimmy White appeared to take him home. It was a slightly surreal night in the pub.

You don’t need me to tell you that George Best was one of the greatest players ever. Pele, Maradona, Messi, they all have their admirers. For me it was Best, even if he did score against my Spurs just about every time they played United.

I never saw him play in the flesh but one of my sponsors Mike Solomons did. This is what he had to say:

“It was late 1975 – I was 12 – when Bestie was just past his prime and he did a 3-game guest appearance for Cork Celtic who were then in the League of Ireland. One of those three games was against Bohemians at Harold’s Cross dog track stadium so Davy (my dad) said we must go along to watch him as it might be the only time in our lives we’d get a chance to see him live – and he was right! Can’t remember the exact score – might be 2-0 to Bohs – but a huge crowd turned out – must have been a record for Bohs – and Bestie made a few mazy runs but mostly picked the ball up deep and sprayed a few passes around the park. Anyway the crowd loved it! And we were all saying exactly the same thing on the way out of the ground – that we got to see George Best play.”

It is a privilege to run in the great man’s name.


And so the countdown is underway. It is Friday today. I need to brave the rain to take in a 30 to 45 minute run just to get the legs moving. I also have to head to Chateau de Vincennes to register, collect my number and chip and work out where the hell I am going to park on Sunday morning. And then, of course, I have to go to work.

©Barney Spender 2012

If you want to support Barney’s effort to raise money for the George Best Foundation then click on the link