If you were to imagine the perfect charity event it would probably be something that engaged the entire nation for hours on TV by catering for the super-human as well as the distinctly human. Today, charities are finally realising that such an event is already staged each year.
The London Marathon, which snaked its way across the capital for the 22nd time two Sundays ago, is unique. No other event manages to attract the great and the not-so-great in one glorious spectacle. Some soar, others just get sore.
Its inclusiveness explains why it has become Britain's biggest fundraising day of the year. Around 100,000 people applied to run in this year's race.
Of the 42,000 selected, around 75 per cent chose to fundraise for 600-plus charities. When the blisters have healed, the foot-weary will have raised an estimated £25 million.
It hasn't always been this way. The first marathon in 1981 involved fewer than 7,000 runners and, for many, fundraising took second place to getting a fast time.
But the potential has always been there. The marathon has the dual advantages of low charity costs, as it's organised by someone else, and having committed fundraisers in runners, for whom helping charity and achieving a personal goal are part of the same objective.
This philosophy is mirrored in the organisation behind the event: for the Flora London Marathon - to give its official title - is itself a charity.
Along with the Flora Light Women's Challenge and the JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge, it is owned by the London Marathon Charitable Trust, whose operating company is London Marathon Limited.
International athletes Chris Brasher and John Disley first mooted the idea of a London marathon in the late 1970s. Brasher, inspired by the New York marathon, wrote an article in The Observer asking why London couldn't offer the same. "We have the course, a magnificent course,
he wrote. "But do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?"
He soon discovered the issue was less to do with hospitality than money.
After a lengthy sponsorship hunt, Gillette eventually put up ?xA3;50,000 but the now-defunct Greater London Council, fearing the event would flop and need bailing out, refused to risk ratepayers' money.
Gradually, race plans were hatched for 1981 with the intention that any profits would go towards improving the city. As an athlete, Brasher - pacemaker to Roger Bannister when he ran the first sub-four-minute mile - noticed how badly London's sports facilities compared to other cities.
To make sure the marathon's attempt to remedy the situation wasn't knocked on the head by the taxman, he came up with the idea of registering the event as a charity to avoid corporation tax on profit.
The modest return of the first race hardly warranted such a measure, but the marathon survived and has only once, in the early 1990s, failed to turn in a profit.
Brasher's departure in 1995 proved the catalyst in transforming the marathon from a mildly profitable event to an immense money-spinner. The new chief executive, Nick Bitel, had a tough, businesslike approach that changed the flavour of the race and paved the way for making the event what it is today.
One of Bitel's first moves was to expand the Golden Bond scheme, which enables runners to buy guaranteed places over five years. Golden Bonds began as a way of tying in corporate bodies when the economic downturn of the early 1990s threatened the future of the race.
But as competition for entries grew fierce, and the concept of runner-as-fundraiser was tapped into, charities began gobbling them up. There are now 200 charities on the waiting list for Golden Bonds, each of which costs ?xA3;250 a year and guarantees entry for five years. It's no wonder they're popular - each Golden Bond runner raises around ?xA3;1,700 a year.
Children with Leukaemia, one of this year's two official London marathon charities, is a long-time supporter of Golden Bonds, which have helped swell its runners this year to 1,370, including ex-boxer Frank Bruno and actress Brenda Blethyn.
With so many entrants, this relatively small charity expects to raise ?xA3;1.4 million from sponsorship alone and could double that amount from associated marathon spin-off campaigns.
Event co-ordinator Pippa Gough says: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we have to maximise it.
"We are lucky to have so many Golden Bonds because we got on the scheme early. I feel sorry for those trying to get on now: it's difficult to get even one."
Whizz-Kidz, which raises money for mobility aids, is another small charity that benefits hugely from having had the foresight to buy bonds. Its 600-strong marathon team raised ?xA3;965,000 of the charity's voluntary income of ?xA3;2.7 million last year. Not bad for a day's work, albeit one requiring months of planning.
Fundraising manager David Pastor says: "As an events-based charity, the marathon is incredibly important to us. We ask each of our team members to commit to raising ?xA3;1,500 and ask them to sign a piece of paper to this effect. We don't go around their house afterwards demanding it but we do ask for a ?xA3;100 deposit."
Not everyone asks entrants to raise a certain amount of money. Children with Leukaemia's Gough says: "We ask people to make the commitment themselves rather than push them into something unrealistic. For us to specify the amount does not help them raise any more."
Competition to fill Golden Bond places with the most pro-active fundraisers is fierce. Most charities place advertising in Marathon News.
But are charities squeezing out the athletes? "No,
says David Golton, secretary of the London Marathon Charitable Trust. "We need a spread of runners because we couldn't cope with 30,000 people finishing in St James' Park at the same time."
Elite athletes agree that the charities bring fun to the day, and the good work they do only adds to the occasion. Paul Larkins, editor of Running Fitness, says: "The London Marathon is one of the top three or four marathons in the world and the charity aspect doesn't detract from that at all. None of the elite runners has a problem with it."
So while athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie provide the lung power, the marathon's beating heart belongs to the people who have never run 26 and a quarter miles before - and often vow never to do so again. Their suffering and achievement, not to mention the silly outfits and sense of fun that accompanies the day, attracts the media as much as the top athletes. Some might say it's only after the first two hours 10 minutes, when the tape is broken, that the event really begins.
One growing trend is for charities to sign a household name to run for them. Macmillan Cancer Relief had Bubble and Josh from Big Brother running, and Steve Cram coaches its team. Frank Bruno, a long-time supporter of Children with Leukaemia, is expected to raise tens of thousands of pounds in sponsorship.
"I imagine he will be interviewed at least a couple of times, and as he's wearing our vest that's great for raising our profile,
Since 1981, the marathon has raised ?xA3;125 million for good causes worldwide and London's sporting facilities have benefited to the tune of ?xA3;10 million from profits distributed by the London Marathon Charitable Trust. Last year, the profit was ?xA3;1.7 million, a sign of the marathon's growing strength.
The trust continues to fund recreation in London and its remit now includes anything from playgrounds to Sport Aid.
Golton is convinced that the marathon's ability to appeal to the fat and the fit, the young and the old, in one glorious springtime celebration of life will continue to help many more good causes.
He says: "You can go to Wimbledon, you can go the FA Cup Final - but you can't go on the pitch. The marathon gives everyone the chance to take part in the same race as the best runners in the world."
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OUT OF THE MARATHON
- Get as many potential runners as possible to enter the ballot for places. They apply via a form in Marathon News, an annual magazine produced each summer by the organisers and sold through sports shops.
- The ballot takes place in October. You can then advertise in one of the two follow-up publications. One is distributed to the successful applicants, to whom charities appeal to to run for them. The other goes to the unsuccessful applicants, whom charities tempt with the chance to still run the event under their Golden Bond scheme.
- The average profit from each Golden Bond is around ?xA3;1,500 - so get your name on the waiting list.
- Official marathon charity status bestows 250 places, favourable advertising rates plus editorials in marathon publications. Don't be afraid to apply. David Golton, secretary of the London Marathon Charitable Trust, says some charities think they are too small to be considered. "Our only minor concern with small charities is whether they can take advantage of the opportunity."
- A tip to improve your chances of selection for official charity status is to offer something in return. For instance, agreeing to amend your letterheads to include a sentence saying "official charity of the London Marathon".
- Decide how to distribute your marathon places. Some go so far as to interview runners to see how much they will raise, some operate a first-come, first-served basis, and other stipulate a target amount.
CASE STUDY: HOW OUTWARD BOUND BECAME AN OFFICIAL MARATHON CHARITY
The Outward Bound Trust proves you don't have to be a big or sexy charity to benefit hugely from the London Marathon. It expects to increase the good work it does this year by a quarter solely through this event.
The organisation was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the marathon's two official charities for 2002. Every year, Flora, the marathon's sponsor, and the London Marathon Charitable Trust, each nominate an official charity.
That means 250 free entries, which translates to more than ?xA3;400,000.
A huge boost
Victoria Fanthorpe, the Outward Bound Trust's marathon co-ordinator, says: "This is a huge boost to our annual fundraising. We were absolutely thrilled to be chosen. We're not a hugely emotive charity, so it's wonderful that they have recognised the work we do in shaping future generations."
The Outward Bound Trust was one of 36 charities to apply for official status. The 60-year-old Lake District-based outdoor educational charity employs around 100 people, whose mission it is to use the mountains and sea as a classroom to teach young people self-development.
Each year, 24,000 people pass through its four centres at Ullswater and Eskdale in the Lake District, Aberdovy in Wales and Loch Eil in Scotland. Being an official London Marathon charity means an additional 6,000 youngsters will benefit this year.
The charity discovered it had been selected for this year's event two days before last year's race. The successful applicants for 2003 were informed on Friday.
Although there is no magic formula for selection, it is essential to show "additionality
- that the money you get will be used to support a new initiative. For Outward Bound, this meant implementing the London Marathon First Step Scheme aimed at 6,000 young people with disabilities.
Three staff runners were the charity's only involvement in the 2001 marathon.
So the past year has been an exercise in grabbing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Keeping a high profile
Fanthorpe explains: "We wrote to all our supporters and as a result we have several large corporate teams running for us. We also published places on our web site, www.outwardbound-uk.org, and through advertising in Marathon News.
After receiving 400 inquiries, entries were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
The prestige of official status does bring with it the responsibility, and costs, of maintaining a high profile on the day. For Outward Bound, that involved a sponsors' breakfast and an after-race reception at Wellington Barracks, complete with food, showers and masseurs.
"We will, of course, incur costs but they are worth it as a way of thanking the runners for their hard work," says Fanthrope.