The Marathon That Never Was

As we mourn the loss of the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon, we pay tribute to another non-existent 26 miler, as staggered round by everyone’s favourite comedy athlete, Simon Pegg’s ‘Fat Boy’ Dennis That classic example of the zero-to-hero genre: Run Fat Boy Run, has some unforgettable moments – you just can’t un-see Dylan Moran’s bare buttocks, Hank Azaria talcum-powdering his tackle and Simon Pegg’s extraordinary solution for alleviating his scrotal chafe. For London fans, however, its best feature is a wide-ranging use of capital locations. As well as glorious gallery of picture postcard sights, there are winsome shots of lesser-known, uber-cool London neighbourhoods. They’re so delightful we’ve had a jog round some of them.

To cover them all in one run would probably be a marathon-length route, so we suggest three shorter runs to take in scenes from the three stages of our hero’s journey, according to the model of the hero myth narrative: the Departure (Dennis recoils from the prospect of married life and fatherhood), the Initiation (into the uncomfortable rigours of marathon training) and the Return (the old world calls the wounded, broken hero home…)

Hackney: Exit stage left, Dennis in his morning suit.

It’s quite hard to understand why Dennis would want to run away from a fiancée as beautiful and skilled in cupcake creation as Libby (Thandie Newton), especially when she lives in an equally gorgeous top-dollar area of London…

21, Meynell Crescent, E9 stands for all the domestic bliss that Dennis sprints from. It has been given a pastel-pink door in the film, but its real-life owner prefers the blue.

At the end of the film, a reformed Dennis plays footie in the park opposite (the outskirts of Victoria Park, Hackney – perfect running country) with the son, Jake, who, five years earlier, represented a ball and chain. You can just see the church he would have been shackled in.

Having made his bid for freedom, Dennis doesn’t seem to be living his best life when we next catch up with him. He’s working as a security guard and living in a bachelor basement in a rather more challenging area of London. Sandringham Road used to be the epicentre of Hackney’s notorious ‘murder mile’ before regeneration made the area as aspirational as various other trendy parts of the borough. The top end of Sandringham Road, E8, near to Ridley Road market, still looks as bit shabby. Number 73, however, garishly done up as Mr Ghoshdashtidar’s house is, in real life, as smart as paint:

The East End: Dennis begins his journey out of despair…

…but not until he’s sunk even lower in the eyes of the woman he wants to win back. His salary as a security guard in a very posh shop doesn’t allow for a comfortable home life. Director David Schwimmer has chosen smartly regenerated Spitalfields, E1 to play this upscale retail haven. Dennis has to pant his way up this street to give chase to a very much fitter comedy shoplifter.

He divides his life between guarding posh underwear, trying to be a responsible dad to five-year-old Jake and drinking too much with his disreputable mates. The mates in question can be seen round a makeshift card table under a cloud of cigarette smoke in an old piano factory (now extinct) at 56 Grimsby Street, E2, just of Brick Lane.

It’s unrecognisable from the film now, as the old arches have been turned into smart flat, but the street art is amazing:

Libby’s charmed life is taking a new turn, meanwhile. Her new boyfriend, Whit (Hank Azaria), is everything Dennis isn’t: swanky job, swanky flat and he just loves running. In fact he’s running a marathon in three weeks.

Libby’s Nice Buns, her cakeshop on the Columbia Road, E2 seems to be doing a brisk trade when Dennis tries to talk her out of the whole Whit thing. Sadly, there are no cake shops on Columbia Road that we can see, and the shopfront used to play Libby’s business is a fancy interiors shop called Mosaic Factory:

With no role to play in Libby’s fragrant life, Dennis seeks solace round the corner, where his most disreputable friend, Gordon (Dylan Moran) lives in some squalor. Gordon, as Dennis’s self-styled trainer has his athlete bed down on his sofa here the night before his marathon, in order to be nearer the start on the big day. That goes well.

The City, where two worlds collide (literally)

Libby, in her wisdom, suggests that Dennis spends more time with Whit to help him accept her moving on. Whit quickly appoints himself alpha male. Where else would such as testosterone-fuelled city slicker have as his place of work than the glossily phallic Gherkin (40 St Mary Axe)?

Intimidated by Hank’s world, Dennis’s ritual humiliation begins. He finds himself trotting meekly after the rival en route to the gym. As Whit delivers a lecture on his favourite pastime – marathon running – Dennis comes face to face with a figure even less suitably built for distance running than he is:

The Broadgate Venus (Sun Street Passage, EC2) reclines comfortably as Dennis scuttles after his rival. Inveigled into joining a spin class that leaves him unable to speak, Dennis is lectures him further on training while vigorously anointing his evidently prodigious genitalia with talcum powder.

The London Marathon in contention is not the London Marathon that we all know and love, as the film company couldn’t get the rights to the Virgin Money London Marathon, so Whit and Dennis turn up the fictional Nike River Run. It’s a marathon-distance jaunt all the way along the river (which would in reality be a logistical nightmare for a group of any more than about 30 runners), starting here:

Dennis and Gordon pile into a taxi 15 minutes before the start and arrive just in time for Dennis to endure more of Whit’s smugness, and the pair set off in high dudgeon…taunting each other all the way. Crunch time comes at the Victoria Embankment, when the pair, inexplicably sprinting in front of the elite runners, cause a multiple pile up.

The race goes pear-shaped for both men from here on in. Alpha male fetches up whimpering and whining in Homerton Hospital, but Dennis, limps on. We see him work his way over a string of London Bridges in this movie: Waterloo Bridge, Millennium and, way out west, the Albert Bridge. He’s still staggering on a broken ankle when he meets the legendary ‘wall’ at Battersea Bridge.

It’s an unlikely hero that embarks on a triumphant return at the finish of River race in the middle of the night, at St Paul’s.

With Libby and Jake holding out their arms just beyond the finish line, a broken Dennis collapses into their arms…redemption for our beta male.

It’s back to where it all started when a freshly mended Dennis bounds briskly back to Victoria Park for a playdate with Jake and a final scene that’s as sweet as one of Libby’s cupcakes and, probably better for us. With no marathons in real life this this spring, a lock in with a feel-good film and a few beers might be the best thing we runners can do on the big day.

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