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London - A strangely competitive conversation cropped up over Sunday lunch with friends last week. It wasn’t about jobs, children, or houses - it was about running.
“I’m averaging 30-odd miles a week and my PB is a mile in seven minutes and three seconds,’ said one friend, before explaining to me that PB is runner speak for ‘personal best’”.
“I didn’t get a place for the marathon this year, but I’m going to try again next year.”
“I did it in 4 hours 12 seconds,” said another friend, who finished her second London Marathon. “It’s not my best time but my knee was giving me jip. Next year, I’m hoping to run New York and I might try an Iron Man.”
Iron what? She rolls her eyes at my ignorance and explains it’s a mixture of swimming, running and cycling.
Sounds hellish, if you ask me, but for my best friend’s husband, who has become something of a fitness fanatic since turning 40, this is a walk in the park. “Well, I’m thinking about training for the Marathon des Sables,” he announced over dessert.
A collective hush filled the room. The Marathon des Sables involves running the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons in the Sahara desert, where it’s quite common for participants to become delirious and collapse with heat exhaustion. I think you would have to be a lunatic or a masochist - possibly both - to even think about it but my friends felt differently.
“That’s amazing,” they sighed. It was like they were in the presence of a rock star.
Yes, forget designer handbags, fancy sports cars or exotic weekends away - it seems that these days you are no one unless you are running a marathon, climbing a mountain or cycling across a continent. People whose only exercise was lifting the remote control until a few years ago have quietly become finely honed athletes.
When my friends talk about New York, Berlin and Paris, they are not talking about mini-breaks, but marathons. Instead of Mulberry bags and LK Bennett shoes, the must-have accessories are “barefoot trainers”, which look like gloves for your feet, and Gore-Tex tops.
In the recessionary world it’s no longer the done thing to flaunt your wealth - fitness is the latest way to show status at dinner parties.
To coin a phrase used by former cyclist Lance Armstrong, it seems that these days “fit is the new rich”.
And it’s not only my circle. Endurance events seem to have become a British obsession.
The London Marathon is the biggest event of its kind in the world, while the number of Brits travelling to take part in runs everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Chicago has exploded. Last year, 5,124 Britons took part in the Paris Marathon and 2,376 signed up to the New York Marathon.
Meanwhile, triathlons are the fastest-growing sport in the UK - with 12,000 people taking part in the London Triathlon.
We turn on the TV to see Eddie Izzard running 43 marathons in 51 days, David Walliams embarking on an eight-day swim over 140 miles of the Thames, and every time we open a magazine we hear about how the likes of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow train up to four hours a day.
There is even a new word for the breed of women who are addicted to weights in the gym - “dumbbell darlings”.
“People are definitely training harder than ever before,” says celebrity trainer Dan Roberts. “There has been a rise in the number of people doing crazy ultra-endurance events like the Marathon des Sables, or city-based obstacle courses like the Rat Race.
“I think the recession has played a part - people need a way to release stress and exercise is the best stress-management tool and it costs nothing to go for a ten-mile run.
“But now I think there is an element of keeping up with the Joneses- there is a social kudos in saying you do triathlons or that you box every week.
“It’s not cool to brag about your wealth any more - fitness is the new status symbol.”
And these days fitness doesn’t come cheap. While women will spend as much as they would on designer jeans and handbags kitting themselves out in Stella McCartney for Adidas, or Sweaty Betty gym gear, men are spending a small fortune on being fitness fanatics.
Halfords, Britain’s biggest bike retailer - which sells one in four of all bicycles bought - last month announced a continued hike in sales, especially in premium bikes. Some sell for anything up to £12,000. Yes, that’s £12,000 for a bicycle.
Men who might have bought a new top-of-the-range sports car a few years ago are opting for a top-of-the-range Italian-made Pinarello Dogma 2 bike, with carbon frame, electronic gears and racing wheels. Yours for just £8,250.
These 40-something and 50-something cycling enthusiasts even have a name: ‘Mamils’ - Middle Aged Men In Lycra.
Although they might not just be in Lycra - cult cycling outfitter Rapha has a turnover of £13 million selling Savile Row-designed gear, while the high-tech £400 Garmin Edge GPS cycling computer has become the new must-have boy toy.
But it’s not all about showing off, says Rhonda Cohen, sports psychologist at Middlesex University. “People do use these experiences as a new piece of jewellery to brag about at a dinner party but I think there is a bigger picture.
“We live in a time when we realise success is not just about what we contribute to the workplace. People want to take on meaningful challenges and contribute to the world as a whole, so they climb Kilimanjaro or hike in the Himalayas or tandem skydive while raising money for charity.
“They get fit and run every marathon around the world or cycle 100 km. Yes, it might make great dinner party chat but the real message behind these experiences is what they can really do for you by challenging yourself to become fitter, healthier and to help others.
“And you don’t need a £12,000 bike to do that.”
Yes, but a nice new pair of trainers or a snazzy tracksuit top might just be the nudge you need to get started. - Daily Mail