Viewpoint: Why did Claire Squires' marathon death strike such a chord?

Flowers left in tribute to Claire Squires

The death of Claire Squires less than a mile from the finish of the London Marathon has prompted people to donate £1m to charity. Why are people so moved, asks Brian Draper.

Many of us know someone who has run a marathon for charity, and quite a few in the UK will know someone who ran this year's London Marathon.

My brother Kevin was running, to raise money for CRY - Cardiac Risk in the Young - which screens young people for the kind of heart conditions that cause them to die suddenly, shockingly.

He ran in memory of Shannon, a promising teenage triathlete who had collapsed and died last year after a race. Tragically, it happens.

Even if you didn't know someone connected with the marathon, it might be that you saw the event on TV, and caught sight of that famous sea of runners, rippling out.

Claire Squires, in red cap, in handout photo from her friend Nicola Short Claire Squires, front, was raising money for Samaritans

The scene always brings a lump to my throat, and makes me want to jump in, to be a part of it all - precisely because I know that most people are either pushing themselves to their limit for a great cause, or (most movingly) running in memory of someone they have loved and lost.

It's a modern-day ritual, then, which seems to bring out the best in us, in a way that's rarely writ so large in our culture. It's both carnival, and spiritual - a reminder that despite our problems, we humans are capable of great goodness, even if we can't run 26 miles ourself, we can celebrate and support someone who's willing to have a try.

Claire Squires was having a try, supporting the Samaritans and running in memory of her brother who died 10 years ago. In a sense, then, her story is a distilled essence of the whole - it's just as ordinary, and just as extraordinary, as everyone else's.

This is not, though, a minor "Diana" moment. The marathon is about the everyday stories of sacrifice, perseverance and love that inspire us personally, and help us to feel proud of everyone running, regardless of whether we know them or not.

The author

Brian Draper
  • Brian Draper is a lecturer at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
  • He is a contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day programme

I'm proud of Claire Squires, just as I'm proud of Tim from two doors down, who I know worked incredibly hard to get round in a good time, and who raised his fair share for a cancer charity along the way.

Tim came home, sore, and inspired. Claire didn't. This doesn't make Claire worthy of veneration.

But the fact that she did die, trying - just yards from the line - touches most of us, quite reasonably, at a deeper level, and prompts us to respond, somehow, who knows how? But since it's easy to find Claire's charity page online, it's surely not a sin to donate, nor is it entirely remarkable that so many have done so.

On the other hand, giving money doesn't make us a saint, either. Our responses are neither "right" nor "wrong", but human. And so, I expect those who have given money have benefited themselves from the after-glow that accompanies any act of altruism (including running a marathon) - and from fulfilling our natural desire to play our part, however small, in the wider human story, which Claire's now so vividly represents.

Risks of long-distance running

Running a marathon or half marathon can be fatal. One of the worst recent death tolls was in the 2005 Great North Run, where four people died.

Claire Squires is the 11th person to die in the London Marathon since 1990 - others have all been men, ranging in age from 22 to 59.

Cardiac arrests are frequently the cause, but hyponatraemia, brought on by drinking too much water, has also been blamed.

I hate to say it, but a few pounds donated to her JustGiving page does buy you a stake in that story. You can add your name to the drama that began to be written on 10 April, when the first person clicked to donate ("Good luck... Love you xx"), and where you can read a friend's pre-race encouragement: "Go! Go! Go! We are on our way to see you at the finishing line!"

Claire's story, perhaps most poignantly and selfishly, reminds us, lest we forget, that it could have been you, and it could have been me. For if a young, seemingly fit woman can be here one moment, and gone the next, then so can we.

So perhaps ultimately, then, each small donation, which adds up to such a great sum, is both selfish and selfless - a ritual act of remembrance, which anyone can take part in, for our secular times, a bit like walking into a church and lighting a candle.

Charity runners in the London Marathon Many run to raise money for charity

It won't bring back the dead, but it will shine a light for them. It will also say that you care, that you know life is fragile, and that every breath is precious, since it may be your last.

I had a place for the marathon too, running for Christian Aid - but I had to pull out beforehand through injury. There but for the grace of God go I, and go we.

But I'll keep running. Because next year, I'd love to jump into that great sea of humanity myself, to play my part.

And part of me, no doubt, will run for Claire.

A selection of your comments is published below.

I wonder how much of this story is due to the fact that Claire was young and very attractive. Somehow a beautiful young woman dying (think Diana, Marylin Monroe, Princess Grace et al) strikes more of an emotional chord with us than if an overweight middle aged balding man keels over before his time. It isn't sexual - undoubtedly many of those who have donated are women - rather there is something particularly poignant about beauty being cut down, something that goes to the very core of our humanity. We donate to her cause because we want to somehow right the wrong, combat the universal injustice of that beauty being taken from us. Beauty is supposed to fade graciously with time not be ripped from us before that time is due.

Phil Mussell, Exeter

I was thrilled to run the London marathon (for Water Aid) a few years ago - it was indeed something of a religious experience. Although have waived their fees (the story is great advertising for them), this in itself may highlight that not all fundraising sites make money

Andy Sims, Edinburgh

I ran past Claire as she was receiving medical attention not knowing at the time what I know now. I am deeply saddened at what happened and my thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends. It is deeply tragic made worse by the fact that Claire was so fit and healthy. I get upset thinking about it and even now writing this I'm moved to tears. London was my second marathon, and now my last. I will never forget that image of Claire but it will also act as an inspiration for me in everything I do from now on. Her application and effort to raise money for good causes will live with me forever.

Mike Bellamy, Taunton

I also ran for Samaritans in the London Marathon, back in 2009. Knowing their set up, I know what an incredibly huge difference £1 million will make to them. Everyone who donated should rightly be proud of helping such a wonderful cause. Such a shame that tragedy had to spark this incredible outpouring of human spirit.

Jon Simmonds, Stockbridge

The reason for the outpouring of sympathy and donations was simply because she was the first woman to die during the London Marathon.

Jon, Leicester

I believe that this young girl has raised so much money posthumously because she was pretty. I think if she looked like me, a balding, chubby, middle aged man, her death would have been merely a footnote.

Peter Donohoe, Stafford

The human response to death is one of sorrow and rememberance. However, the worthy and selfless act of trying to help others should never be overlooked and I amongst others reacted by donating to Claire's fund. It did not make me feel 'better', it just reminded me what it was like to be human and to lose something so valuable - No big fuss, but a chord was struck. RIP Claire. I never knew you, but like 30,000 others who ran for charity that day, you're a better person than me!

David Clifton, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

This article implies that the donations by strangers to Claire's Just Giving page may have an element of self-interest. Such interpretations of charitable acts ignore what should be the obvious fact: that if giving to charity does create some sense of fulfilment for the giver then it is because they assign worth to the well-being of other people.

Timothy Wilson, London

Claire was happy to be raising £500 for the Samaritans, to put herself through 26 miles of pain for a charity that many of us don't give a second thought to. Claire was happy to be raising £500 for the Samaritans, to put herself through 26 miles of pain for a charity that many of us don't give a second thought to.

Andy Hydes, Coventry

Claire's death is very close to home for so many. I'm an avid runner, am also called Claire, have also run two marathons, am a similar age (33), have been with my boyfriend 2.5 years, just love running and making a difference. It seems like a huge waste of a life. Running can be addictive and sometimes it is difficult to know your limits and listen to your body. As a fit, healthy and slim woman with no apparent health problems, it makes me realise how important it is to stay on top of health checks, especially to the heart.

Claire Thompson, Chiswick, London

Unfortunately I collapsed at 24 miles near Temple...the first i knew was when the St Johns Ambulance were bringing me round and chucking ice all over me and putting bags of ice down my trousers. My temperature was sky high and I had no recollection of anything. They kept asking me questions that I couldn't answer at first and at one point I had no control over my body. I was transferred to a bed at University College of London Hospital and eventually released at 11pm. Obviously I'm very disappointed but thankful for St Johns being there. This has been quite a shock but has not put me off running.

Caroline Linares, London

I think the reason so many people have donated is because she was young and fit. I stood on the top of Kilimanjaro with her. She was the only person in our group to hardly break a sweat. Her bubbly personality is clear for all to see in the photos that have been shown of her. She was someone who was always up for a challenge and saw an opportunity to raise a few pound for charity. In the past she has raised money for lots of different charities and I know she would be so touched at the reaction of the public.

Anna, Southampton, Hampshire

When four runners died in the Great North Run a few years ago no-one batted an eyelid, and indeed the news coverage was celebratory, just as if no-one had died. She was good-looking so she made a good story. She was not the first woman to die in the London marathon - there was a death in 2007. In this case journalists saw a pretty face and ran with it. By the way death is a risk in endurance sports, it's not unusual.

Dmitri, Whitstable Kent

I don't agree with the view that she's received so much sympathy because she was a young, pretty woman, nor because she was the first woman to die in the London Marathon. For one, when I donated, I didn't know she was the first woman to die. The fact that she had a history of fundraising for causes sold it for me. Secondly, if a balding, chubby, middle aged man who was running for a deserving charity, who had a history of selfless acts for charity, died a mile from the finish, I think it would still get attention, and I would happily donate. You can thank social media for the vast coverage. I don't deny that the youth - and the beauty, though that's subjective - can make traditional media coverage easier. But it has more to do with the injustice of the situation than a pretty face.

Elizabeth, London

I saw Claire collapse and then receive treatment, it's one of the worst things I have ever witnessed. For me, it struck an emotional chord not only that she is the same age but that her life disappeared in an instant. One minute she was running then she was on the floor lifeless. I had gone to see my boyfriend who ran past some time afterwards and I have to say I squeezed him very tight when I saw him! I think the lesson is to value every moment you have with loved ones.

Kate France, Chelmsford Essex

I don't want to undermine the good things that people do in life. But I just think in a discussion such as this, it is important to consider that a lot of the people (not all) who run marathons arguably do it more as a personal thing. In many cases they run for charity because it means they don't have to pay to take part and because it is easier to get a place in what are increasingly very popular events.

Gregg, Leeds

There are five main reasons: 1) pretty face. 2) extensive media coverage. 3) rarity of females dying in marathons. 4) charity connection. 5) darker connections.

Jim Botswana, St Albans

I ran London last weekend as part of the same Samaritans team in which Claire took part, it forming the central run in my 3 marathons in 3 weekends challenge. I'm not a committed runner and neither was Claire - neither were most of the other runners for Samaritans. We do it because we believe in the charity as a non-judgemental listening ear for anyone in their darkest hour. What happened to Claire was tragic in that amidst the sea of smiling faces and challenges, an otherwise fit, healthy individual paid the ultimate price whilst doing their bit for others. The continued donations mean that some good will come from an otherwise horrific story and ensure that Samaritans can continue their work helping make sure other lives do not end prematurely. This Sunday I'll be running the Greater Manchester Marathon in my Samaritans vest, not only in memory of Claire, but in tribute to everyone who has supported, sponsored and encouraged me - proud to be able to make a difference in my own small way, just as Claire would have been.

Andy Swann, Mere, Wiltshire

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