Modern Marathoning: The Why and Wherefore

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My son and daughter-in-law hope to run the Chicago Marathon this fall. They had to sign up six months in advance to be sure to be among the first 35,000 people to be accepted. As is the case for so many big-city marathons these days, you have to sign up early, enter a lottery or qualify.

So, what’s with that?

There’s obviously something alluring about this “ultimate test” of human endurance that smacks of a metaphor for life. It’s long.

It’s grueling. And as in life, you’re surrounded by a lot of people with the same intent, and there are plenty of folks around to cheer you on, but as the miles drag out you realize you’re pretty much left to your own devices.

More significantly, the marathon inevitably offers you the choice of giving up or pushing on — usually at a time when neither option has much appeal.

Ah, but these are not thoughts we have when we challenge ourselves to the feat. What ARE we thinking when we promise ourselves and our friends that we’ll be out on that starting line six months hence?

Well, the “merits of marathoning” was always a short list, and what we thought was the one good reason — good health — has been shot down by researchers who liken both the training and the race itself to placing your body in a torture chamber and leaving it there.

It doesn’t follow, apparently, that if moderate exercise is good for the body, the marathon is great for the body.

If not for the body, then, you’re left with the obvious: the marathon is a “head game.” Like life.

I once wrote a magazine article that included just about every conceivable theory on why people would run a marathon, ranging from the circumference of ancient “hunting boundaries” to one’s desire to flee. None probably applies to the modern big-city marathoner, who will never climb Mt. Everest, but will run the marathon “because it’s there.” Most people probably just dare themselves and then commit. Easy.

Training is slightly harder.

But the true joy of the overall marathon experience is in the training. As one who took up running in fifth grade and basically never stopped, I came to view the marathon not as a goal, but as a reward for achieving the goal — being in great shape.

When one is in marathon shape, there’s a tremendous feeling of physical freedom. On the days you exercise that freedom fully, you bring your physical, mental and spiritual beings into alignment. Running, if you do enough of it to achieve that alignment, gives you a chance to reach deep for a closer glimpse at how life’s puzzle fits together.

But it’s just that — a glimpse.

It evaporates. Real problems don’t go away. On the other hand, real problems are put into perspective, not so much because you “have your health,” but because the number one benefit of running is stress reduction.

Much of stress is physical. Exercise elongates the muscle cells and reduces the feeling of tension.

Coming off a good, hard 12-mile run, how important is it that the VCR is broken? Grab a Gatorade and get those legs hosed down.

Reflect for a moment on that stream of consciousness that loosened your grip on materialistic angst. Rest up for the next time your mechanics of motion become the poetry of feelings.

Running is an appropriate escape in the modern world. In fact, contrary to the views of some, the marathon is entirely a modern phenomenon, not a throwback to ancient times. As historians know, the Greeks did not run marathons. Well, they had one marathoner, Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to report favorable war news. By dropping dead at the end, he pretty much set the bar for all-out effort.

So, did the length of his run explain the unusual distance of the marathon — 26 miles, 385 yards? No, that distance wasn’t made official until the 1908 Olympics, when British royalty adjusted the distance so that the race could start at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the Royal Box in the Olympic Stadium at White City. That distance was abandoned after 1908 until the 1924 Olympics in Paris, when it was restored. It has been the standard distance ever since.

The first marathon race was held after a French historian, Michel Breal, doctored the scant facts surrounding the Pheidippides run to suggest that the modern day Olympics, originated in Athens in 1896, include such an event. Many of the American spectators who journeyed to the 1896 Olympics were from the Boston area. The Bostonians were quite enthused and began their annual race the next spring.

I managed to qualify for the 100th running of the Boston Marathon, and with 50,000 participants that year (1996), it felt like Woodstock without music until the gun went off at noon in Hopkinton, at which time we streamed toward Boston.

Few things in my experience compare with the emotional high I felt at the half-way point, when thousands of Wellesley coeds were screaming in support of us. The scene wasn’t so pretty a few short miles later on Heartbreak Hill, but in the final analysis the ordeal was worth the pain.

Once again — as in life.

With 57-year-old knees and planter fasciitis, I don’t think I’ll be joining my son and daughter-in-law this fall at the Chicago Marathon. Been there, done that twice.

But in the meantime, I’m going to make it a point to get in as many good, long, hard runs as the body will tolerate.

God knows the mind needs them.