Mind over matter

Runners at the 38th Berlin marathon raised EUR350 for Workers Fund Iran. Ben Lewis was there to cheer them on

I seem to be writing a fair bit about solidarity sport at the moment. Just two weeks ago I reported on our third fundraising cricket match for Workers Fund Iran, which raised £500 (‘Batting and bowling for Iran’s workers’, September 15). Now I have more good news.

WFI is a charity that embodies the principle of proletarian internationalism. It raises funds for the embattled working class in Iran - a country with deeply-rooted working class and revolutionary traditions. The money collected is still relatively small, and our actions are still dependent on the initiative and energy of a small number of activists. However, the charity is growing in strength. Increasingly, fundraising is taking place on an international scale.

One such action comes through the efforts of a group of hardened Iranian activists. They have been raising money in a different, rather more physically demanding fashion than cricket. Coming from the USA, Italy, France, Sweden, Germany and Britain, they fly the flag for WFI by putting themselves through perhaps the ultimate of sporting ordeals - running the 42.195 kilometres of a marathon.

Now, while cricket is not without its risks (when batting, one should certainly ‘protect one’s assets’, as the now famous bond trader, Alessio Rastani, would perhaps have it), our WFI marathon runners really do put their bodies on the line for the cause. According to some research, during a marathon more than half of the segments in the heart’s main pumping chamber can markedly decrease in function. Add to that the dangers of water overconsumption and the infamous ‘wall’ most runners experience at the 30-kilometre mark (where the body runs out of glycogen and begins to consume fat), and one can appreciate the self-sacrifice and dedication such solidarity involves.

Indeed, following two whole days of running, poor old Pheippides - the ancient Greek messenger sent from Marathon to Athens to announce the stunning victory of the Greeks over the Persians - is said to have collapsed on the spot from exhaustion after completing his final leg of 40-plus kilometres (the length of a marathon race). It is unlikely that the avenging of that ancient military defeat acts as some kind of inspiration to our Iranian comrades, as they pound the streets to the detriment of their health … What is clear is that this is certainly not cricket.

Sporting the shiny new Workers Fund Iran running shirt (“We look far more professional than we actually are”, a comrade from France told me) a total of 12 WFI runners joined around 40,000 other participants on the flat, fast route around Berlin, with its picturesque, historical surroundings. The race proved to be historic, with Kenyan ace Patrick Makau setting a new world record of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds.

Amidst an excellent atmosphere, those of us who were not running set up a stall on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, about 38 kilometres into the race. Joining up with some comrades involved in the campaign to free Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, we issued leaflets in English, Farsi and German to make the public aware of events in Iran and the need for direct material and ideological solidarity. The reaction was largely positive. Several of Berlin’s relatively large Iranian population stopped by to purchase one of our yellow cotton T-shirts, to make a donation or to discuss the current situation in Iran.

About four hours into the race, some of us then pulled one or two of the distinctive WFI T-shirts over placards and joined the crowd to cheer on our runners as they came past. An incredibly inspiring experience. As the time passed, the size and shape of the runners varied considerably, their speed gradually slowing to walking pace. A few of them were under visible stress. Yet it was truly inspiring to see the sheer determination on the faces of runners who knew they were a mere four kilometres from their goal. Some of them had trained for months, and their confident satisfaction was unmistakable.

Over the course of the next hour or so, all of our comrades came past, stopping only for a sweaty embrace and a photo with our placard. There were three debutants amongst the group, including a young couple who had clearly had a tough time of it. When I asked them about future marathon plans, they told me to ask them again in six months time!

Special mention must go to our comrade Joseph from Sweden. After having seen all 11 of our runners go past, we started to worry about what had become of him. A rather ‘strongly built’ comrade, he had managed to raise money by merely pledging to run the first five kilometres - many doubted he could even do this. However, he just kept on going … and going. Whilst waiting around for him, some of his closest friends and comrades joked that he was probably in hospital. Yet at a time when the official route was closed, and Berlin council workers were taking down the barriers, he finally appeared on the pavement approaching our stall. Comrade Joseph may have been more than five hours behind the likes of Patrick Makau, yet he seemed to be attracting almost as much media attention. He was dead last in the race, and several radio and television stations were keen to interview him. Had he trained? What was he doing this to himself for? As Nima from Sweden put it to me, all we need now is for somebody to win the race wearing the WFI colours - then our publicity will be unrivalled! (Any keen readers currently training at altitude in Kenya are requested to get in touch.)

For me, seeing those like Joseph push themselves to the limit underlined something about the marathon experience: it is predominantly a case of mind over matter. Of course, it helps if you have the lung capacity the size of Berlin’s Tiergarten park, but the test is at least as much mental as physical.

After the marathon, our exhausted runners and their supporters all gathered for a celebratory meal. Their bodies may have been fatigued, but their mood was jubilant. Delectable Iranian food combined wonderfully with German beer, and many songs were sung in Farsi, Turkish and Kurdish. I was one of only two non-Iranians, but was made to feel extremely welcome. There were some excellent discussions with the comrades, who all spoke some English or German. I informed them of some of the actions WFI has been organising in Britain, and how it would be an excellent idea to coordinate future fundraisers as closely as possible.

So it was decided that WFI activists would concentrate on two marathons in 2012. The first will be in Vienna on April 15, the second in Venice next October. There are a number of interested first-time runners from Britain, and it is hoped that in Venice we can field a team of around 25-30 runners from around the globe - raising the banner of internationalism and raising much-needed funds in the process. Following on from the €600 raised at the Hamburg marathon in May, the runners in Berlin pulled in a further €350. There is no reason why we cannot raise a lot more in 2012.

I will be joining some other British comrades and friends in Vienna for my first ever marathon. Readers who know me might appreciate how much effort it will require to get into shape (especially after all that Iranian food!), so your sponsorship will be much appreciated. If you would like to be part of the WFI contingent at the marathons next year, or would like to find out more about what you can do for the charity, email office@hopoi.org