By Owen Morgan
The Virgin Money London Marathon course is undoubtedly a long and testing one, but the road to reach the start line as an elite runner is immeasurable by comparison.
Four Welsh athletes are due to take their places amongst the cream of global distance running at the head of this year’s event on Sunday, April 28.
Swansea Harriers Dewi Griffiths and Josh Griffiths are joined in the elite field by Stockport AC’s Andy Davies and Natasha Cockram, of Mickey Morris Racing Team.
They will literally be rubbing shoulders on the start line with the likes of marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, serial world champion and Olympic gold medallist Sir Mo Farah, and women only marathon world record holder Mary Keitany.
Each one of the Welsh athletes has taken a different path to reach the same ultimate goal.
But for each one of their stories, there will be dozens of other Welsh runners of all abilities, pounding the streets on Sunday morning with their own personal goals in sight.
Enthusiastic jogger looking to improve their fitness, charity fund-raiser or talented club athlete, each will have been inspired to lace up their trainers for different reasons and join the growing number of enjoying the running revolution sweeping Wales.
For the elite athletes, however, their ambition will be to reach the finishing line on the Mall in the fastest possible time.
As well as personal best performances, Welsh and British Marathon Championship titles are on the line along with potential selection for this year’s World Athletics Championships and next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
The fastest Welsh runner on paper is Llanfynydd’s Dewi Griffiths whose path started as a young boy told by his parents to go and “run around the field” to keep him occupied while they worked on the family farm.
Those laps sparked a love of running which saw him start competing in fun runs, aged five. The seven-time Welsh Cross Country Champion and Commonwealth Games athlete ran a hugely impressive time of 2:09,49 in Frankfurt on his marathon debut.
Natasha Cockram’s route to marathon success took her to college in the United States, where she suffered a career-threatening knee injury.
Having undergone successful surgery and returned home to Gwent, Cockram combines a full-time job as a civil servant with an athletics career which saw her last year burst onto the international stage by winning the Newport Half Marathon.
Andy Davies is no stranger to running on the streets of the capital, having represented Great Britain in the marathon at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London.
The Newtown College lecturer started running to keep him fit while playing football for League of Wales side Caersws, where he won three Welsh League Cups and played in Europe.
Since then, he has also represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games and is a Great Britain international mountain runner. His training takes place in the mid-Wales hills alongside his terrier, Scrappy.
Davies was joined at the World Championships by Josh Griffiths, who claimed his place when he shocked the athletics world by emerging from the massed ranks of club runners to finish as the first Briton at the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon.
The Swansea Harrier’s performance was such a surprise that even the BBC’s athletics commentator Steve Cram had to scrabble around for details of the Welshman as he came into view on the Mall.
Griffiths recalls: “2017 was a great race and I gained a lot of things from it, but 2019’s a new year and I’ve got new aims. It’s time to move on from 2017 and run a good London again.
“It’s going to be really competitive for the Welsh Championships positions, and then you’ve got the British Championships as well with a brilliant field, so it’s really cool to be a part of it.
“Obviously, the London Marathon is the race, but there’s lots of smaller races within the race. You’ve got the guys at the front, you’ve got the Welsh Championships, the British Championships . . . there’s lots of mini-battles going on throughout the field, so it should be a good day.”
Carmarthenshire-based Griffiths started his running journey after watching Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele’s 5,000m and 10,000m double gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As a result, the then 14-year-old joined his local athletics club – Carmarthen Harriers – and nine years later he was alongside his running inspiration Bekele at the post London Marathon gala dinner.
Exactly one year to the day before competing at the World Championships, Griffiths was running the Swansea Bay parkrun alongside club runners, enthusiastic joggers, families and walkers, some tackling 5k for the first time.
If ever there was a perfect example of how inclusive distance running can be, then Griffiths’ story is surely it.
The Mall in 2017 also witnessed one of the London Marathon’s most iconic moments as Griffiths’ Swansea Harriers clubmate Matthew Rees stopped to help distressed fellow runner David Wyeth when a personal best time was within reach.
The selfless act epitomised the spirit and camaraderie shared by runners of all abilities and made headline news all over the globe.
But perhaps the most celebrated Welsh success in London was Steve Jones’ triumph in 1985.
The Ebbw Vale-born runner took the London crown after having set a new marathon world record in Chicago the previous year.
There was a further Welsh triumph in 1985 when the late Chris Hallam won the wheelchair race in a course record, before repeating the feat two years later.
Hallam was the inspiration for Wales’ greatest paralympian Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, who went on to win the London Marathon a remarkable six times.
With thousands of new runners taking part in Couch to 5K initiatives and local parkruns every week, who knows where the next generation of Welsh athletes will come from and where their running journeys will take them?