It's funny, the week before a marathon, I'm usually in reflective mode, as the taper takes full effect. I'm carbo loading, stretching out the muscles and going the last pace runs. I usually take in some inspirational reading of one of my running books or go into my DVD library of running films and documentaries. Yes, this is what this marathoner does.
I'm good for new fodder, so I watched the episode and was impressed as the producers pull on your emotional heart strings. I mean, yes, it's so inspiring to watch a woman who lost a tonne of weight run her first marathon in under 5 hours, and another in less than six. Then to watch a son greet his father at the finish some 13 hours after the start, and there are tears and smiles. I think that the marathon is given its due respect -- yes, it is an awesome distance. But why?
First a digression on running a marathon on 26 days training:
Twenty six days is not enough in my opinion to do one. Even Steve Runner, who got a last minute entry into Boston this year, acknowledge that with 5 weeks of training that he had barely enough to get by, even though he is a very experienced runner who had done 19 marathons.
They never said on the show how much they were running, but I did see one of the calendar showed a 12 miler a few weeks from the marathon. I wonder what the longest distance they had done in that month. Even in the most novice of programs, runners can't ramp up from 12 miles to 26 in a few weeks. That's breaking one of the golden rules of running, not to increase your mileage by more than 10% a week.
That said, these contestants are definately clearly in better shape than most sedentary citizens, 17 plus weeks of exercise and weight loss means they are actually had a pretty good base to work from.
My worry about this is not that it'll cause people to recklessly go into marathoning -- I think they depicted that distance as a monumental challenge, and one should know that to decide to run one is not a one month commitment. And I guess as a runner first and also as a marathoner, I say this. For me, marathoning is not just one of those 'to do' things on a life checklist.
So what is the mystique of the marathon?
I saw a headline the other day in the newspaper describing a 12 inning 'marathon' game. I see on TV how there's a Seinfeld marathon. I read about a marathon bargaining session by the union. The question I ask (and I say this as a journalist) is does any of these people truely understand what is the marathon? Does it mean a long distance or a long time? Does it mean that once you get beyond the normal expected time, that now we're in marathon time? Is it associated with boredom, or pain, or endurance?
I ask this because what you feel at the last strech of the marathon, beyond this dreaded wall when the 'sugar' your body was meant to hold has long run out, you feel the range of emotions, from the highs of happniess to the depths. Does one feel at the 12th inning of a ball game that the only thing that's going to get them through a leg cramp, or what will get them staggering to the finish line is will and determination. When one hits the lowest point, and wants nothing else but to just stop or walk, what keeps us moving? Do you get that by watching 10 back-to-back episodes of prime time TV?
For me, my first marathon was about challenging myself to this historic and daunting distance while setting a goal. But I found that the 18-week journey to get to the starting line -- 10 milers on weekdays or 20 milers on a Saturday morning -- was where I found myself as a runner. I've written about the runner's high or the reflective moments, but to this day it's those long distance runs that capture something more, the life of a long distance runner unfolds. You go beyond running for cardio or speed. You run to feel what it is to be alive.
Yes, I enter certain marathons with time goals, with things like a BQ or PB in mind, but there's got to be more to that. There's something more that will drag me out to Mississauga on Sunday morning to line up with a few thousand other marathoners and half marathoners. The horn sounds, and we are off to go on our chase to the goal 26.2 miles later.
I think it's what we gather on the way to the finish that makes the distance great.