Marathon Session

What started out as a plan to make my girlfriend my wife became a quest to run 26 miles around Baltimore.


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Fall brings the beginning of a new marathon season. I’ve bought a new pair of sneakers, for $75, and I spent $80 registering for the Baltimore Marathon. My wife, who had once encouraged me to do this, is no longer completely sure whether it’s actually all that good for me. She may have a point. Jim Fixx, after logging all those miles and writing all those books, died prematurely of a heart attack. The latest edition of Runner’s World includes an interview of two-time New York Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, in which he discusses his recent cardiac arrest. While interviewing writer Stephen Dixon, I learned about his brother Don, who started running at 44, reigned for a decade as champion in his age group, and then died four years ago on a long run when a large tree branch fell on his head. A year ago, in the Chicago Marathon, Robert K. Cheruiyot knocked himself unconscious when he slipped while raising his arms in victory as he crossed the finish line.

And then there’s the problem with marathons in the age of global warming. Earlier this week, I woke up to read that with record-breaking temperatures of about 88 degrees, a runner died at mile 18 of the Chicago Marathon and about 300 runners were treated for heat exhaustion. At the Army 10-miler in Washington, D.C., a jogger died at the end of a 10-mile run. Statistically, the survival rates are excellent. But it puts a damper on the idea that running marathons increases one’s life expectancy.

My own marathon career started in late spring 2005, when my then-girlfriend (now wife) first referred to my stomach as my gut. Excuse me, I said. My pants are 32. That doesn’t constitute a gut. Your pants, she said, are 32, but your gut is 34, and you’re 42. I was supposed to fill in the blanks. If I was going to be her boyfriend, or, and this was the subtext, her husband, my gut was going to have to stay at 32, and stay there for good. So I acquiesced. The next morning, at 6:30, she took me out to the track at Johns Hopkins University. I started jogging around the track. I think I did it eight times. That was about two miles. She was standing at the railing when I finished. Good, she said, now do that once a day.

I did it once a day, since it was springtime, the fountain of youth. I would wake up, gamely put on my sneakers, and chug around the track for eight, then 12 revolutions a day. It seemed reasonable; it seemed right. The fact that after initiating this regimen, my then-girlfriend never really participated in it herself was always a bit of a sore point. But then, if that’s what I had to do to get married, it was a small price to pay.

I enjoyed it at first, but eventually the 12, and then the 16 laps started to bore me. So I started to run in circles on a small, hilly, tree-garnished route through the all-white neighborhood of Roland Park, Baltimore. On July 4, 2005, I ran three times around that same hilly route. Each time, I passed by a small block party. As I watched them flipping burgers and developing guts, I started to feel good about myself. Afterwards, I drove my now-wife’s car through the route, and, after calculations, I realized that I’d run four miles running to Cold Spring Road and back, and 2.3 miles each time I circumnavigated the Roland Park Reservoir. That meant I’d run 8.6 miles in one evening.

I kept running those distances. Every night after running, I would lie in my bathtub, soaking my legs, reflecting on the changes that were taking place. Things were changing. Large portions of my life cycle were being defined by running. And if I didn’t run, then I’d feel bad. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I’d start to get restless. And finally a word started to creep into my brain as I lay there in the tub, in the middle of the night, looking at my swollen big toes sticking out of the murky water.

Marathon. I started to Google the word on my computer. It is a 26-mile race named in honor of a man who ran 26 miles to pass on some good news to a Greek king, and then died of exhaustion. It sounded like fun. Then I found, to my surprise, that each autumn, my own city hosted a marathon. This would be a major comeback in the extended plotline of my life. Thinking of the next two months in terms of Rocky VI — each day getting closer to the big day — had its appeal. I started to run 30 or so miles a week. I wasn’t just jogging now. I was in training.

My wife, interestingly, began to look at this development with a jaundiced eye. This wasn’t something I was doing for her anymore. That made her suspicious. Running for me, actually, became a declaration of independence. I ran because I was angry. As is true with many smaller American cities, Baltimore is a town where, on the bad days, it seems that the harder you try, the more people assume you’re on drugs. Running the Baltimore Marathon, I decided, would cut through the crap, if that’s the right word.

Running did change my life. My knees started hurting constantly. The balls of my feet started hurting. My wife started telling me I looked too skinny. The 32 pants began to sag. My parents started to wonder aloud if something was wrong with me. I began to understand why there are no major writers that I know of who run marathons. My professional ambitions didn’t disappear completely, but they found themselves on the sidelines, squeezed in between 16-mile long runs.

Physically, I was ambivalent about what I was turning into. I looked in the mirror, and I was a 98-pound weakling. My legs started looking strange: The calves pumped up, and the thighs grew stringy. Then old friends started noticing me chugging up Calvert Street on a daily basis. My plumber, who has a very large gut, stopped me one beautiful autumn morning as I was running across an intersection, stuck his head out the window of his van, and yelled: “Now I know you’re gay.” I didn’t pay much attention, since my mind was on the 2005 Baltimore Marathon. It was coming soon. I started counting down the days.

My body started counting the days as well. I developed runner’s knee, or at least I diagnosed it as such on Google. Some of the entries, though not all of them, hinted that this might cause permanent disability. I chose to focus on the more positive diagnoses and decided to run through the pain. That meant that instead of feeling and looking healthier, I could barely walk. I couldn’t descend staircases anymore while bending the left knee. Then I couldn’t descend them while bending the right knee. I would limp into the classroom, and teach, and limp out, and limp back home. My students must have thought something was a little wrong.

Then I started to develop runner’s wallet. It involves buying new shoes ($100; look like space shoes) and new books on running ($25 each). Then I had to buy something to stop my left thigh from hurting (a rolling stick, which I haven’t used since: $15). Then I had to buy running shorts. These are very short shorts, which don’t do much more for you than normal shorts already do ($50). Then I bought runner’s gloves. Apparently they do something that normal gloves don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t cost $20. There were other accoutrements: runner’s hat, runner’s kneeband, runner’s butt-pack, runner’s goo, and a runner’s cookbook.

The word started to spread that this had become a central goal in my life. Friends enjoyed participating in it vicariously. One gave me a runner’s training diary. It’s about 200 pages, and it costs $14. That doesn’t sound bad, but it only includes about 40 pages of writing; the rest of it is essentially blank. Over a period of about 200 days, the week-by-week diary gives the reader the chance to record exercise impressions. The book includes sample impressions, such as Marina to Golden Gate Bridge and back — awesome view but banked and paved. Cool, windy. You write down the day, the date, the weight, the shoes, the “resting h.r.” (whatever that stands for), the time, the pace, the “training h.r.” (whatever that stands for), the miles/km, and the miles/km to date, along with comments. It also offers a metric conversion chart (5k=3.1068560 miles) and approximate target weights. It also offers Age-Adjusted Road Race Time Factors. One’s age adjusted time factor for 37, at 10 kilometers, is apparently .9662. At 15 kilometers, it’s .9746. Again, I’m not sure what that means.

One friend subscribed me to Runner’s World, which was free at first, but later involved paying on a regular basis. It included, in the issue that I have before me, a section on midrun noseblowing. There is a proper form for conscientious nose-blowing: Lag behind a few steps, veer toward the side of the road, turn head 90 degrees away from partner and slightly downward, press nostril, aim for grass, then blow. Adding an ‘excuse me’ never hurts.

Finally, at the last minute, I paid $105 for the privilege of running in two huge, hilly circles around Baltimore proper. It was referred to as the Baltimore Marathon, but its official name was the 2005 Under Armour Marathon. I had to go to an expo at Ravens Stadium to pick up my “pack,” which included a small tag to put on my shoe, a number to pin on my shirt, lip balm, and a pair of cheap gloves with the name of a health insurance company printed on ithem. It was a strange environment to me, more like a small arms convention than an actual athletic event. Although running in itself is a fairly simple activity, dozens of booths were offering high-priced items that turned the expo into something more complex than I’d ever really anticipated. They included watches that apparently measure progress by satellite, muscle relaxants, key holders, and opportunities to sign up with running coaches. The coaches were expensive, but I wasn’t sure what exactly they did, besides tell people to run. All of these little businesses, however, seemed to be selling things at a fair clip.

The entire floor of Ravens Stadium was buzzing with strange energy — the energy that people radiate when, for instance, they’re excited by the prospect of a major snow storm and run up and down the aisles emptying grocery stores. The sense was that for most of them, the die had been cast. They had crossed the Rubicon. That seemed to create a cheap sense of camaraderie, as people wandered through lines, gabbing with strangers about how apprehensive they were about the next day’s race. Unrequited sacrifice and pain is frequently an isolating experience; for these people, it was creating a temporary bond. A number of discussions involved respective cramps and muscle tears.

The next morning, of course, there was the race itself. It was not a great experience. I won’t go into the details, but like many of those with me, I spent most of my time waiting for it to be over. Finally, at about noon, it was. I was very tired. That sounds obvious, but it’s hard to describe exactly how tired I was. They offered free beer at the end, but I wasn’t in the mood for free beer. They handed out bananas, and I like bananas. But right then, bananas were the last thing I wanted. The only thing I wanted to do was sit down, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I was so tired — and this sounds repetitive, but it’s important — that I knew that if I sat down, I’d regret it. I did sit down, eventually, and I did regret it. I collapsed on a tuft of grass somewhere in the vicinity of Camden Yards, along with the shiny piece of plastic foil that they gave all of us after the race, along with a bag they’d given me containing a large medal of honor, lip balm, crotch lubricant, and leaflets advertising all of the other races that the season would bring. It wasn’t the sort of exhaustion that one gets after, say, a healthy walk, or even a long day at work. I don’t know what to compare it to. The legs themselves become people in their own right. I could almost hear them speaking to me: Wait a minute. You just paid $100 to do this?

I’m not saying that they actually talked per se. But they were establishing their own credentials. They understood, basically, that as legs they had been essential to the evolutionary process. They had started out as large flippers, and long long ago, some fish who was ahead of his or her time decided against all accepted wisdom to take a walk on the beach. Things had moved forward from there in the accepted way, and eventually you had Homo sapiens, walking bolt upright, chest out, eyes right, turning the world into an image of itself. Whatever they say about the brain, none of that would have been possible without the legs. As I sat there in the parking lot of Camden Yards, I mulled over that fact. My legs had been supporting me for about four decades. Running 26 miles seemed to leave them wondering if they’d made the right decision.

I got back to my feet, which was not easy, and I headed towards the exit to the parking lot. People around me were shivering in tin foil, lining up at the porta-potties, or throwing up in the parking lot. Most of them were white, except for the very dark, very bald, very elite, very skinny people from Kenya who had already packed up and left an hour or two earlier with their $5,000 checks, or whatever they get for winning the race.

The day, interestingly enough, was not even half over. It wasn’t even one-quarter over, actually. The chimes of midday had not struck. I had to walk about three miles up St. Paul Street to Charles Village from Camden Yards. Taxi drivers were offering their services, but were I to actually step into the cab, I would not be able to extract myself. My legs, again — they were telling me that this was a one-time affair, never to be repeated. As I walked up the long hill (which, actually, I had just paid $100 to run up and down twice already), city functionaries were pulling up the florescent orange cones which had marked the marathon route.

I guess you could call the bed in my Charles Street apartment the Promised Land, but the chase was better than the catch. I arrived home. I even made my way upstairs, and unlocked my door. I lay down on my bed. The strange thing was now I was there, my head on my pillow, staring at the ceiling fan circling above, and my legs suddenly began to hurt more than ever. It was a dull extended ache, an ache that is hard to describe. So I stood up. But then I began to feel a different pain: a sharp, tight stiffness of muscles that had started to feel like deadwood with nerve endings. So I lay down again. The sharpness left me. But in its stead, once again, that slow, endless ache, began to soak back into me, as though my body was a sponge that had been created to absorb pain. I tried to reduce my body size, to squeeze myself, mentally, back into the womb, to imagine a time when I couldn’t even walk, much less run, 26 miles. That didn’t help. My wife told me that I looked like a big baby. That may have had some truth in it, but it didn’t help either.

That was about two years ago. A lot has happened since then. I’ve run four marathons since then, without breaking any records either for my age group or my sex. The actual experience of running a marathon hasn’t gotten any more pleasant. I ran in the Philadelphia Marathon in 2005, but I arrived and found myself without any place to sleep, until, late at night, I found an old friend in town after finding his name in the phone book in a hotel lobby. In 2006 I ran in the New York City Marathon, which is very crowded — so crowded, in fact, that when I dropped my butt pack at the opening gun, and tried to pick it up, I almost got run over.

Obviously, a lot of Americans like me seem willing to pay for the experience of finishing with the pack, getting their medals, and drinking their free beer. Even in the minor marathons, the ones where you may win $750 if you’re lucky, the field is larger than ever. I know that about 40,000 people were running in New York. More would have run if they could have. I think the highest placing American in the 2006 New York City Marathon was 15th. Sometimes I think that Americans are getting worse at marathons, just like they’re getting worse at a lot of things, but, in the era of American Idol, they’re doing it in greater numbers.

Regardless, I’m back in training for this season’s run. Baltimore 2007, is next. I like to call it training; it actually just involves jogging on a regular basis, and, every couple of weeks, a long run. I see a lot of other people in the neighborhood doing the same thing. Marathons are getting more and more popular in the U.S., but for Americans, at least, winning the marathons seems to be less of a priority. American names no longer break the tape in American marathons. The people at the finish line don’t even speak English anymore. The top five winners of the Baltimore Marathon in 2006 were Yirefu Birhanu, Mykola Antonenko, Wilson Komen, Jynocel Basweti, and Joseph Mutinda. In the 2006 New York Marathon; the guy who won that, dos Santos, was from Brazil. The top American in that race, Gilmour was tenth. For the last five years, the winners of the Chicago Marathon have been from Kenya. The top American finisher in Chicago this year was eighth.

I’ve never actually seen anybody win a marathon. The closest I came to doing that was in the Philadelphia Marathon, where, given the eccentricities of the course, I was able to watch the lead runner (from Ontario) whooshing by in the opposite direction, about 60 minutes ahead of me. When I saw him, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a winner. He had a violently contorted expression on his face, and his arms were twisted like bizarre pretzels. He also had the look of an enraged tiger going in for the kill, or better, a bug-eyed, stone-faced, emaciated hermit-saint who could see something that none of us could see. He clearly had run to win. For the rest of us, in that huge, chugging, gasping crowd that travels, sometimes from one coast to the next, from one marathon to the next, the reason for running is a little more elusive. Speaking for myself, though, I can only say one thing with absolute certainty. It’s not about the gut anymore. • 12 October 2007