986 - the number of the hero?
The defining image of this year's London marathon will not be of an elite athlete crossing the finish line, destroying the race record and securing the adulation of the crowd. Instead, it will be of two middle-of-the-pack runners, one delirious and incoherent with fatigue, while the other supports him in the final steps of their 26 mile journey.
On 23rd April 2017, thousands set out to run through our nation's capital. Each had their reasons for testing themselves in the crucible of this country's most iconic race. Some wanted to achieve a PB, some wanted to see if they could simply complete the distance and many more ran, not for themselves, but for various charities.
David Wyeth's run was deeply personal; he was raising funds for the Isabel Hospice which had provided palliative care for his uncle in his final days. By the time he had turned the corner for the final stretch of the race, with the finish line just 300m away, he had already given everything he had. Staggering and on the brink of collapse, it looked unlikely that he would be able to make the line, except by crawling on all fours. His courage and grit became condensed into a single mantra which he was repeating with each painful step: "I have to finish. I have to finish".
As Matthew Rees prepared to sprint towards that same line, he saw and heard Wyeth's struggle and, in a moment of selfless compassion, abandoned his own race to assist his fellow athlete. Bracing Wyeth and wrapping his arm around his shoulder, he reassured him, "Come on mate, let's do this. I won't leave you". The two men were soon joined by a third who took Wyeth's other arm and together, they made their way forwards as runners streamed past them on both sides, the crowd cheering as the drama unfolded.
Hailed a hero by the media, Rees was dismissive of his decision to stop and help. He commented "I think anyone would have done the same thing". But, of course, anyone didn't - he did, and in doing so his race position (986th) by no means reflected his athletic performance on that day. Not only was Rees philosophical about his ranking, but he revealed post-race that he had taken up running just two years before as a way of addressing his own struggle with anxiety and depression, making the moment all the more numinous.
David Wyeth was provided medical attention at the finish line and has since made a full recovery. He is not only grateful for the help he received in order to complete his run, but has also been humbled by the support afforded to him by the nation at large. His 'JustGiving' page has exploded with activity and his initial ambition to raise £1000 for the hospice has been surpassed tenfold! At the time of writing, Wyeth has raised £10,444 and the figure is still climbing!
There were no doubt other tales of courage and sacrifice, equally moving in their own way, written on the streets of London that day. Heroes are not just those who slay the dragons of this world (it is notable that the race took place on St George's day) but those too who run headlong towards their limitations in the service of others, and somehow find what it takes to keep going.
Sometimes we can cross the finish line under our own steam; sometimes we need to limp forwards together, arm in arm. A podium finish is worthy of respect and admiration, but perhaps 986 is a number deserving of celebration too.