LONDON — Beneath giant Union Jacks, workers assembled grandstands at the London Marathon finish on Saturday night. The action took place inside a secure zone that stretched from one end of the Mall to the other, basically from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square. Thin, 6-foot-tall temporary fencing formed an outer perimeter, while thicker, waist-high metal barriers ran along the roadside. Security guards in fluorescent vests admitted only construction vehicles and credentialed staff. When the area is race-ready, it will be locked down until the runners arrive on Sunday.
Tom and Carole Fabian hope to be among the London Marathon finishers. The couple, who grew up in central Massachusetts and now split their time between Lynnfield and Port Charlotte, Fla., ran in last Monday’s Boston Marathon. Tom finished in 4 hours 1 minute 34 seconds, then walked to the family reunion area near the John Hancock building. That was where he stood when he heard and felt the two bombs explode. Carole was stopped at Cleveland Circle. As they approach the finish on the Mall on Sunday, they will be thinking about Boston and keeping their eyes open.
“I don’t imagine anything is going to happen here,” said Tom. “But I’ll watch the side of the roads. The more people that are alert, the less likely things can happen. I ran down Boylston Street and was forced down that left side of the road. Was I looking for a bag? No. I was looking at the finish line. This time, when I finish I’ll be looking not so much at the finish line, but at the ground and what’s on the side of the road.”
In an ever-vigilant city all too familiar with terrorist bombings, Tom Fabian will be far from alone. The London Marathon is accustomed to heightened security. And the capital has a long history of forging ahead after acts of terrorism. Hosting 36,500 runners and an estimated 700,000 spectators less than a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, London will rely on lessons learned from its tragic past.
Started in 1981, the London Marathon grew up under the threat of terrorism with Irish Republican Army bombings regular occurrences in the 1980s and ’90s. On July 7, 2005, bombers attacked the London transportation system with three explosions on London Underground trains and another on a double-decker bus. Former race director Dave Bedford said the marathon has dealt with direct threats in the past and one nearly delayed the start. Also, he recalled that one year, a week before the race, city authorities quickly repaired part of the course after a bomb went off nearby.
“London was under attack from the IRA for probably the first 15 years of the race’s existence, so we’ve always worked very closely with the Metropolitan Police and the city politicians to ensure that the course is as safe and secure as possible,” said Bedford, who served as race director from 1998-2012 and currently recruits the elite field. “With 26 miles, it’s not the easiest thing to do, but we’ve always felt we’ve been on top of security.”
In advance of the marathon, the Metropolitan Police announced that it would be “deploying an increased and highly visible police presence” that would include “several hundred additional officers on the streets” and more search dogs. The police said that the additional officers were meant to “reassure the public attending Sunday’s London Marathon” and that there was no change in the threat level to London and “nothing at this stage to link the Boston bombings to the London Marathon.” Officials also cautioned spectators not to leave their belongings unattended.
Today, London is widely considered the most heavily surveilled city in the world with a total of roughly 500,000 closed-circuit television cameras and security video cameras. Perched on building corners, atop traffic signals, and throughout London Underground stations, the cameras provide blanket coverage of city streets and other major transportation routes. In the marathon command center, race organizers can use thousands of CCTV cameras along the course to monitor the event, according to London Marathon chief executive Nick Bitel.
“It’s against that background that we’re able to say we have confidence in our security,” said Bitel. “But we also had a review to see what else we needed to do after Boston. You’ve got to have a presence, but we don’t want people to be afraid. There’s always a balance.”
With the exception of a couple of police officers scanning the ExCel Centre crowd at the London Marathon expo, it appeared like business as usual. Runners picked up bib numbers on Saturday and said reassurance from the police helped them move past any initial hesitancy about running. They also took comfort in London’s ability to stage the 2012 Summer Olympics without a terrorist incident.
Bitel said the London Marathon organizers “haven’t heard of one person who’s not attending because of what happened in Boston.” Thom Gilligan of Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel, had one woman drop out of his group of 300 American and Canadian runners. The woman was a mother of four and “felt guilty about leaving her children with all that was going on.”
And less than 24 hours before the start, some runners and their supporters continued to rework their race day plans. Jeff Hammer of Westport, Conn., briefly considered not competing in the London Marathon because “my wife is worried about copycat events.” He arrived in London with his family as part of a European vacation, but doesn’t think his family will be watching from any roadside “because of the minute chance that something could go wrong.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Fabians briefly debated whether they would fly to London. Family and friends asked the couple not to go. But the Fabians decided, as Tom said, that it was “a chance of a lifetime” to run Boston and London less than a week apart.
“We’d gotten text messages from London organizers saying they had beefed up security,” said Carole. “You can’t let terrorism run your life. We have to put our trust in the people there to protect us.”
Added Tom: “It didn’t seem like a major terror organization plot to us. We figured that this was something with a couple of people that were more interested in hurting other people, rather than making a statement to the world.”
As with all marathons, many of the people lining the course will be the family and friends of runners. Joan Campbell of Liverpool will be there supporting her 19-year-old son, Jack, in his first marathon. She plans to cheer Jack between miles 6 and 7, head to the Tower Bridge to catch him at miles 13 and 22, then go to the finish. “If anything was to happen, Jack is probably the safest because he’s on the track,” said Joan. “We’re probably more vulnerable in the crowd.” Sue Van Evra of Canmore, Alberta, will wait for her boyfriend at the finish.
“I definitely felt uneasy when I heard about what happened at Boston,” said Van Evra. “But I’m a runner and I feel like if we don’t run, if we don’t spectate, you’re kind of feeding into fear.”
In a visual treat for runners and spectators, the London Marathon passes many of the most iconic sites in the city, from Tower Bridge to the Houses of Parliament to Big Ben to Buckingham Palace. And the finish area extends almost to 10 Downing Street, where the prime minister resides. While the Boston course passes through the suburbs, and fans sometimes spill over from lawns onto the street, the London route screams history and big city during many sections. At key viewing spots such as Tower Bridge, waist-high barriers keep spectators back from the roadway.
Bitel believes the iconic sites along the course add to runner and spectator safety “because those are the places the police are used to securing all the time.”
“We always had a desire that London is always open,” said Bedford. “So, we’re used to bouncing back from challenges. We always believe an event going ahead is the best way to attack back any potential or actual threat.”