I vowed never to run another marathon. Too hard on the body, too much training. I found better ways to stay happy and healthy, with competitive mile races (see The Mulligan Mile).
This week, Boston Marathon stories are mesmerizing me and I’m rethinking that position because, for reasons great and small, marathons matter.
1. Bananas When I ran my first NYC marathon in 1991, the primary performance-enhancing drug I consumed was bananas. They helped me train and miraculously appeared in the Bronx only miles from the finish line when I still wasn’t sure I was going to make it. It was my first real nutrition lesson. You do what you eat.
What we consume (food, habits, media, possessions, you name it) will either help us to our goals or prevent us from achieving them. In our everyday lives, we aren’t pushed to the extremes that marathoner is, so it’s easy to just get by and coast with foods and habits that are good enough. But for (the vast majority of) marathoners being good enough isn’t good enough—the body just won’t tolerate it. Living on that line, with such a tight connection between habits and outcomes, can be difficult. But the discipline of that joyful intention is critical to living a full and healthy life.
2. Somebody Wins, But I’m Not Sure Who As a race, it matters that there is a winner—but it matters even more that hardly anyone other than the running geeks care, remember or even know who it is. Unlike any other sporting event, the marathon is too big to bestow all the accolades on the two runners who win the overall race. Celebrity isn’t hogged by a few, it’s spread thin among many. It’s earned and rightfully claimed by each runner that coasts or staggers by. That’s who I cheer for—and those are the people who bring cheer to all who watch their work.
3. We Heal as the Marathoner Suffers Maybe it’s a coincidence that I’m writing this on Good Friday. And I’m sure it’s sacrilegious to even allude to the comparison. But can any of us deny that we are looking forward to some kind of vicarious redemption on Monday when this year’s Boston Marathon is run. We want that day to be a beautiful, healing, national celebration of perseverance, resolve and community. We want it for the lost, the survivors and frankly, for us. Those 36,000 runners and the countless volunteers will do the work, but all of us will heal.
4. The Nameless Are Named The best advice I got on running my first marathon was to write my name on my shirt, so that people could call me by name when I went by. It was such a good idea that now it’s done officially on the racing bib, and the effect is the same: an unsinkable buoyancy provided by that three seconds of personal connection between two people who are there for each other in that one present moment. It’s much different than joining a chorus of cheers for a team—it’s personal, it’s fleeting and it’s a reminder that each person matters to someone, even if only for that one moment you share together.
I suggest we now go further—let’s have spectators wear name tags so that the grateful marathoners can thank them by name. Let the official campaign begin.
5. I Can Earn (or Buy) My Way In There are two ways in to the Boston Marathon—qualifying with a fast time in another marathon or raising a sufficient amount of money for a sponsoring charity. In either case, the registration fees are pretty steep. Think about that. Can you imagine if they put that rule in the NFL next year? “Ok, men. You aren’t getting paid, but we will let you play for the Patriots if you go out and raise $10,000 for Children’s Hospital”.
The marathon goes beyond amateurism for all the but the elite of the elite runners. It isn’t like other major professional sports that generate jobs but basically suck ticket money out of the breadwinners of a city and funnel it to owners and millionaires who have made a career out of sports entertainment. Instead, a well run urban race pumps millions into charities through people who pay for the privilege of participating and provides an incredible human spectacle of hope and honor to the throngs that gather to freely watch the event.
6. The Best Stories Are Unseen For those of us who will show up on Monday or watch on television, we will see an incredible display that will last a few hours. It’ll be great and we’ll be all high fives and fist bumps with a healthy dose of goosebumps. But please, let’s not kid ourselves.
The real stories about that marathon will be told quietly in the kitchens and car rides and restaurant booths one-on-one between runners, spectators and all those who are interested in knowing what it was all really about. The race is really run on all those dark mornings and bone-chilling evenings of training that took place when we were asleep or complaining about how cold it was when we walked to our cars. We will see the tip, but the iceberg of achievement and sacrifice and ascendant spirit happens in small, unseen moments that are only known by the runners themselves. That’s why they’ve already won when they line up in Hopkington– and why it matters to be even a tiny part of it. Why it won’t be the same without each and every one of those hidden stories.
So, marathon. I’m not saying we are getting back together. But I will be watching on Monday. Call me.