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The Mystique of the
I heard the comment in passing, approximately eight miles into the Twin Cities Marathon. "To think," said a woman spectator, "they paid to do this." Her comment floated out of the crowd, but by the time I turned to look, my stride had carried me past where she stood beside the course.
I understood what she meant. Twenty-six miles is a long way. Even thinking about running that far takes a certain amount of endurance. Yet somehow those of us who call ourselves marathoners do it again, and again, and again.
Yet the woman's comment didn't disturb me. First of all, I thought there was some truth to it. Second, I was too busy running as fast as I could to worry about what the spectators were thinking.
Only later would her remark return to haunt me. It was obvious that she failed to comprehend the mystique of the marathon. Yet how do you fully explain to spectators the joy and pain that go into running 26 miles and 385 yards? The woman certainly would have found ludicrous the personal quest on which I had just embarked. As a sixtieth birthday challenge, I had decided to run six marathons on six successive weekends. The Twin Cities Marathon, which links Minneapolis and St. Paul, was the first of the six. The effort almost destroyed me, and I came close to dropping out of several of the races. Reporters asked if my six-in-six stunt was a world record for successive marathons. I smiled, because obviously they had never heard of Sy Mah, who in his lifetime finished 524 marathons (more about himlater).
Sy Mah would have understood my obsession with running marathons. He knew that it's not merely the race itself but also the preparation that goes into the race: the steady buildup of miles, the long runs on Sundays, the inevitable taper, the ceremonial aspects of the total experience. Two positive aspects of marathoning are that it provides focus for your training and offers a recognizable goal.
The woman watching at Twin Cities probably would shake her head in disbelief if any of the 5,076 finishers that day told her that they had enjoyed the experience, that it had been fun. Fun isn't a word that occurs to most nonmarathoners when they consider the marathon.
Doug Kurtis, however, understands. Kurtis serves as director of the Detroit (formerly Motor City) Marathon, but during his competitive career he ran 190 marathons in 25 countries, winning 39 of them overall and running faster than 2:20 on 76 separate occasions. Typically, Kurtis ran a dozen marathons a year. One year at the Barcelona Marathon, he went out too hard on a hot day and faded to eighth. The Danish race winner asked him afterward, "Was that one fun?".
Kurtis had to admit that it wasn't, but he said he wouldn't run a dozen marathons a year if he didn't think they were fun. "Often, the enjoyment is the training before and the memory after," he says.
Like Kurtis, I believe the actual running of the marathon is secondary to the training leading up to the event. If you love to run, then you appreciate the motivation the marathon provides for those long Sunday runs and those fast midweek track workouts. Marathon training focuses the mind, and that may be the best excuse for racing this distance.
"I go out for my daily workouts because I enjoy running," claims Kurtis. "At noon, I pick scenic routes through surrounding streets near my office. In the evening, I often run from home along a parkway. I like to find pleasant places to run and see the sights. I enjoy being out there day after day. Races are just a by-product."
Marathon running also has the potential to increase your life span and to improve the quality of your life. Again, it's not so much the running of the race that affects your health but the lifestyle changes that often accompany the commitment to run a marathon. To become a successful runner/marathoner, you need to: (1) follow a proper diet, (2) eliminate extra body fat, (3) refrain from smoking and avoid heavy drinking, (4) get adequate sleep, and (5) exercise regularly. Epidemiologists such as Ralph E. Paffenbarger, M.D., who analyzed the data of Harvard University alumni, have determined that these five lifestyle changes have the potential to add several years to our lives. The marathon lifestyle is definitely a healthy lifestyle.
We have known this at least since the mid-1970s, when the first running boom got under way. One of the first individuals responsible for promoting marathon running as a healthy activityor at least not a dangerous activitywas Thomas J. Bassler, M.D., a pathologist at Centinella Valley Community Hospital in California, and one of the founders of the American Medical Joggers Association. Dr. Bassler proposed the theory that if you could train for and complete a marathon, you would become immune to death by heart attack for at least six months. He later extended that immunity to a yearthen beyond a year.
Dr. Bassler's marathon immunity theory ignited an instant controversy. Many people, including members of the medical establishment, considered his theory not only unfounded but outrageous. A few considered it dangerous because they thought it would lure ill-prepared people to the starting line.
The criticism centered on Dr. Bassler's lack of evidence. He had not done a controlled study. All he had done was propose a theory and ask medical experts to prove him wrongthat was not how serious medical research was conducted.
Over a period of years, eminent cardiologists attempted to dispute Dr. Bassler's theory. They would cite evidence of a runner who died of a heart attack, and Dr. Bassler would point out that the runner didn't run marathons. They would cite a marathoner who had collapsed in the last mile, and Dr. Bassler would note that the runner didn't finish the race. Dr. Bassler refused to accept anecdotal evidence of coronary deaths, demanding to see x-rays. In several apparent marathon coronary deaths, he identified the culprit as dehydration or a cardiac arrhythmia rather than the standard heart attack caused by blocked arteries. On several occasions, when seemingly pinned into a corner with his theory disproved, Dr. Bassler would modify the theory just enough to maintain the controversy.
On numerous occasions over the years, I interviewed Dr. Bassler for books and articles and found him almost pixielike. His face was serious, but his eyes twinkled. Although he always professed to be 100 percent committed to his theory of marathon immunity, I was never quite certain whether he was serious or merely putting us on.
But he certainly succeeded in convincing the general public that running distances of 26 miles and 385 yards was not fraught with danger, that marathoners were not routinely collapsing, clutching their hearts, that marathon running should not be banned from city streets as a matter of public safety. By digging deep to uncover examples of supposed marathon deaths, each critic of Dr. Bassler was inadvertently proving what I consider to be the doctor's main message: that marathon running is a relatively safe sport, and a benign activity as long as you train intelligently, behave rationally, and take proper precautions (such as drinking plenty of liquids on hot and humid days).
I'm not sure if cardiologists ever succeeded in disproving the Bassler theory of marathon immunity. More likely, everybody simply lost interest as marathons became a fixture of twentieth-century civilization. By the mid-1980s, a decade after the start of the running boom, enough marathons had been run and enough runners had survived marathons that an occasional cardiac death in a race was considered no more or less alarming than someone dying while attending a symphony concert (which I once saw occur). Dr. Bassler faded into the backwaters of marathon celebrity, but his immunity theories certainly should be credited for helping create the marathon mystique.
Bigger And Better
There definitely is a mystique about running a marathonno doubt about it. You can run 5-K races until your dresser drawers overflow with T-shirts, but it's not quite the same as going to the starting line of a marathon. "For many runners, it is their personal measuring post and the one distance they want to conquer," says Robert Eslick, a coach from Nashville.
Marathons, on average, seem to be bigger events than 5-K or 10-K races, even when those shorter-distance events attract larger fields. Arrive several days in advance of a marathon and you know you're at a Big Event, regardless of how many people are entered.
Maybe the excitement is partly anticipation among those who have entered. Each runner has committed so many miles in training for this one event that the race takes on a level of importance above and beyond the ordinary, regardless of the size of the field. One year I visited Toledo, Ohio, to lecture the night before the Glass City Marathon, which attracted about 500 runners. Compared to marathons in New York or Honolulu or London with their fields of 30,000 runners, that's pretty small potatoes. Yet despite Glass City's relatively small field, the same premarathon excitement was present. I could feel it around me as I spoke. People often talk about there being a "glow" around pregnant women. That's certainly true, but there's a similar glow around expectant marathoners. Many of them have devoted nine months of preparation for their big event. All the people in my audience at Toledo had worked hard to get ready for the race. Looking at their faces, I envied them.
After my talk, I climbed into my car and drove home to Long Beach, Indiana. The trip took me three or four hours and wasn't much fun. But the marathon my audience would run the next morningwhich would also take three or four hourswould be fun. Meanwhile, I had to wait eight more weeks before I would run the marathon I was training for.
What is it about the marathon? Is it the race's history? Its traditions? The many fine runners who have run it? The marathon is all of that, but there's also a mystique about the distance itself. Would the race have the same appeal if it were a more logical 25 miles? Or 40 kilometers?
Footsteps Of Pheidippides
The establishment of the marathon at the unquestionably odd distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (or 42.2 kilometers) certainly adds to the mystique. The first event to be called a marathon was held in 1896 at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. This long-distance footrace was staged at the end of those games to re-create and commemorate the legendary run of Pheidippides in 490 B.C.
In that year, the Persians invaded Greece, landing near the plains of Marathon on Greece's eastern coast. According to the legend, an Athenian general dispatched Pheidippides, a hemerodromo, or runner-messenger, to Sparta (150 miles away) to seek help. It reportedly took Pheidippides two days to reach Sparta. The Spartans never did arrive in time to help, but the Athenians eventually overwhelmed their enemy, killing 6,400 Persian troops while losing only 192 of their own men. Or so it was recorded by Greek historians of the time.
Some historians dispute those numbers, suspecting they are the typically exaggerated claims of the victors. Then there is the question of whether the messenger dispatched to Athens with news of the victory was the same Pheidippides who ran to and from Sparta.
Regardless, a hemerodromo apparently did run a route that took him south along the coast and up and across a series of coastal foothills before descending into Athens, a distance of about 25 miles from the plains of Marathon. According to legend, Pheidippides announced, "Rejoice. We conquer!" as he arrived in Athensthen he fell dead.
Ah, legends. Latter-day historians doubt the total accuracy of the legend. That includes the late Jim Fixx, who traced Pheidippides's journey for a Sports Illustrated article that became part of Jim Fixx's Second Book of Running. If there were a hemerodromo, claimed Fixx, he may not have been the same one known to have relayed the request for troops to Sparta. There may or may not have been a hemerodromo by the name of Pheidippides who died following a postbattle run to Athens. Fixx and others noted that Herodotus, who first described the Battle of Marathon, failed to mention a hemerodromo; the story appeared four centuries later when the history of the battle was retold by Plutarch.
Nevertheless, the legend took on the imprint of historical fact and was certainly no less worthy of respect than legends involving mythical Greek gods such as Hermes or Aphrodite. It seemed perfectly suitable at the 1896 Olympic Games to run a race in Pheidippides's honor from the plains of Marathon to the Olympic stadium in downtown Athens. It was particularly fitting that a Greek shepherd named Spiridon Loues won that event, the only gold medal in track and field won by the Greeks on their home turf. Among the American clubs represented at those first Games was the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), whose team manager was John Graham. So impressed was Graham with this race that he decided to sponsor a similar event in his hometown the following year. Races of approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) had been held before in Europe, including one held in France before the Olympics. But nobody had attached the name marathon to these races, and there wasn't yet a marathon mystique.
Fifteen runners lined up at the start of the first Boston Athletic Association Marathon in 1897 to race from suburban Hopkinton into downtown Boston, and a new legend was born. (A previous American marathon was run in the fall of 1896 from Stamford, Connecticut, to Columbus Circle, near the finish line of the current New York City Marathon, but it failed to survive.) The Boston Marathon remains the oldest continuously held marathon. It continues to retain its status and prestige, and it attracted a record 38,000 runners in 1996, its 100th running.
Determining the Distance
For a dozen years, the official marathon distance was approximately 25 miles. That was the distance run in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris and the 1904 Games in St. Louis. Then in 1908, in London, the British designed a marathon course that started at Windsor Castle and finished at the Olympic stadium. This was long before course certification experts measured race distances to an accuracy of plus or minus a few feet. Nobody challenged the British course design, which reportedly was laid out so that the royal family could see the start of the race. The distance from start to finish for that marathon was precisely 26 miles and 385 yards. For whatever reason, that distance became the standard for future marathons.
Frank Shorter tells the story of running the marathon trials for the 1971 Pan American Games. At 21 miles, he was lockstep with Kenny Moore, a 1968 Olympian. "Why couldn't Pheidippides have died here?" Shorter groaned to Moore. In that case, it was Shorter who "died" and Moore who went on to win the race.
The running event that is so popular today might not be the same if the plains of Marathon had been closer to Athens. Exercise physiologists tell us that it is only after about two hours of runningor about 20 miles for an accomplished runnerthat the body begins to fully deplete its stores of glycogen, the energy source that fuels the muscles. Once glycogen is depleted, the body must rely more on fat, a less efficient fuel source. This is one of the reasons runners hit the wall at 20 miles, and successfully getting past that obstacle is what makes a marathon such a special event.
Many of us who consider ourselves accomplished runnersand who are well trainedrun 20-milers as part of our marathon buildup without excessive pain and with little fanfare. It is only when we stretch beyond that point that people sit up and take notice. Would a million people line the roads along the Boston and New York City marathon routes if the distance were only 20 miles and if there were no wall to conquer? No, they want to see us tempt the fate of Pheidippides. They come to see us suffer, although inevitably both spectator and runner leave fulfilled only if we demonstrate through our successful crashing through the wall and crossing of the finish line that we are victorious.
Changing Your Life
For many runners, completing one marathon is enough. This is particularly true for many first timers today. It changes their lives forever. Professional photographers who take pictures of runners crossing the finish line find that two or three times as many people order prints of their marathon finishes, compared to runners who finish shorter races. It's the same reason that people order more pictures at weddings. A marathon is an extra-special event. It's like tacking a Ph.D. at the end of your name, getting married, having a baby. You're special, whether anyone else knows it or not. You certainly do. Your life will never again be quite the same, and regardless of what the future brings, you can look back and say, "I finished a marathon." Others consider running marathons to be a continuing challenge of numbers: personal records (or PRs), which exist to be bettered at each race. Even when aging brings the inevitable decline in performance, new challenges arise as the lifetime marathoner moves from one five-year bracket to another.
It is also possible to run marathons recreationally, not caring about time or finishing position, but participating merely for the joy of attending a Great Event with all its accompanying pleasures. I have run many marathons in this manner, running within myself and finishing far back from where I might have had I pushed the pace harder. One year at the Honolulu Marathon, I started in the back row and made a game out of passing as many people as possiblebut doing it at a pace barely faster than theirs so as not to call attention to my speed, so it didn't seem that I was trying to show them up. Beginning with the 1995 St. George (Utah) Marathon, Runner's World began to organize pacing teams led by editors running slower than usual while shepherding others. I've led pacing teams on several occasions. It's fun, and it's rewarding to help others meet their goals.
I've also run marathons in which I stopped at planned dropout points, using the race as a workout to prepare for later marathons. At the World Veterans Championships in Rome in 1985, I ran the marathon at the end of a week's track competition mainly so I could enjoy the sights and sounds of the Eternal City. In the last miles of the race, as I entered a piazza with a panoramic view of St. Peter's Cathedral across the Tiber River, I paused for several minutes to absorb that view, then continued toward the stadium used for the 1960 Olympic Games. How fast I ran, or how well I placed, were the last things on my mind. Crossing the finish line, more refreshed than fatigued, I was approached by an Australian runner, who announced, "This is the first time I ever beat you."
I felt obliged to correct him: "You didn't beat me. You merely finished in front of me."
The Australian stammered an apology, but he had missed what I believe to be the point of the marathon. Or at least he was not aware of the way I had chosen to run the marathon that particular day. In a marathon, you don't beat others, as you might in a mile or a 100-meter dash. Instead, you achieve a personal victory. If others finish in front of or behind you, it is only that their personal victories are more or less than yours. A person finishing behind you with less talent, or of a different age or sex, or various other limiting factors, may have achieved a far greater victory. At the 1992 Boston Marathon, John A. Kelley, age 84, finished in a time of 5:58:32. The officials stopped timing at five hours, at which point 8,120 runners had crossed the line (not counting those running unofficially without numbers). It was the 61st and final time "Old John," a two-time winner of the race, would run Boston. None of the thousands finishing in front of Kelley could be said to have beaten him. He is a legendlike Pheidippides.
One beauty of the marathon is that there are many more winners than those who finish first overall or in their age groups. "Everyone's a winner" is a dreadful cliche, but it happens to be true when the race involved is 26 miles and 385 yards long.
A Lifetime of Marathons
Reporters sometimes ask how many marathons I have run. Until recently, I would respond, "About a hundred."
This amazed them: "You've run 100 marathons?"
I had to correct them, because I didn't want to read in the newspaper the next morning that I had just run marathon number 101. "No," I would say. "I don't know how many marathons I've run. But it must be about a hundred."
Then in the spring of 1995, a year before the 100th Boston Marathon, I got curious about the exact number. (I now keep a daily training diary, but there were periods of my career when I did not.) Using the library at the Boston Athletic Association, I searched through old running magazines and newsletters for old marathon results. I was able to identify several races that I had little memory of running, including one in which I had finished first! But the actual total number of marathons I had run was less than what I had been telling reporters for years: it was only 90.
That was the bad news, but the good news was that with a little effort over the next twelve months, I would be able to run my 100th marathon at the 100th Boston. Thus running a marathon a month became my goal for a year. Fittingly, I ran my 99th at the Trail's End Marathon in Seaside, Oregon, one month before Boston. Since that historic event, I've once more lost track. Ask me the correct number again before the 200th Boston.
I'm far from being the record holder when it comes to the number of marathons run. Sy Mah, the Toledo, Ohio, runner who often ran two and sometimes three marathons on a weekend, finished 524 races that were longer than 26 miles before his death from cancer at age 62 in 1988. Adding to the total was the focal point of Mah's running, so it was important that he keep precise records for each of his races. He was another legend. Mah usually finished in the high three-hour range. I once told him that if he focused his attention for six months on a single racetraining specifically for it, resisting the temptation to run other marathons so that he could taper and peakhe could probably improve his time by half an hour, and maybe even break three hours, putting him near the top for his age group. Smiling, he conceded my point, but we both knew that was not what he was about. His joy was running as many marathons as possible and adding to his impressive string of numbers, which earned him an enviable spot in The Guinness Book of World Records. (In 1994, Norm Frank of Rochester, New York, broke Mah's record. Frank, who runs approximately 40 marathons a year, had pushed his record number to a devilishly difficult 666 by the of 1998.)
Excerpted from Marathon by Hal Higdon. Copyright © 1999 by Hal Higdon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.