Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 13 Sep 2008 06:06:35 -0400

Standing and Watching

RUNNING COMMENTARY 745

[rerun from September 2004 Marathon & Beyond; my first column for that magazine, for which I still write]

When asked to move my byline from another magazine to this fine one, I quickly agreed, but then privately asked myself: Do I really belong in Marathon & Beyond? Readers are justified in asking the same: How well can I speak to their interests? They run marathons and, for some, beyond that distance. Do I?

Well, no, not lately. My life as a marathoner sputtered to a halt in 2000, after four dozen finishes spread over four decades. I'm not ready to say that the last one has been run, but the passing years have turned a probably-soon into a maybe-someday.

My life as an ultrarunner never really got started. I dropped out more often than finished those few races, all run by 1971.

Which returns us to that question: Do I have anything left to say to runners of distances now available to me only in aging logbooks? Yes, I think so.

I justify my new position in Marathon & Beyond by broadening the definition of "beyond." It doesn't have to mean only "longer than." The word can also imply "in addition to."

"Beyond" can include runs other than marathons and ultras, the shorter training and racing that isn't devalued by the long. "Beyond" can include what happens after the long races are finished, when the knowledge of and appreciation for marathoning and ultrarunning don't end at the final finish line.

Paul Reese, the grandest old man of the roads I've know, once bristled when I referred to him as an "ex-Marine." Colonel Reese corrected me by saying firmly, "There's no such thing as an EX-Marine." He explained that once you've had the experience, and Paul had it in three wars from the 1940s to the '60s, it never leaves you.

Likewise there are no ex-marathoners or ex-ultrarunners. Once you join this club, you never really leave. The experience stays with you, to share with the runners who follow you on these courses.


LIVING THE AFTER-LIFE

The best of runners see little of the rest of us the least while competing at their fastest. Not until their pace slows or their racing stops do the former best truly join the rest of us.

Runners fast and fortunate enough to reach the top get to spend only a few years there. Most of them peak in their late 20s and early 30s.

Then where do they go? What do they do with their next 50 or 60 years, after the cheering stops?

Many more little-noticed ex-great runners than celebrated current ones now roam the world. One recent summer I saw three past greats at the Steamboat Marathon in Colorado.

Lisa Rainsberger was there. You might remember her as Lisa Weidenbach who, three times in a row between 1984 and '92, missed the Olympic Marathon team by one place. Her serious racing years are long past, but she does little looking back with regret.

"I'm living in Colorado Springs and training marathoners there," she said when we met at Steamboat. "We brought 40 of them to this weekend's race."

Lisa pointed to her young daughter, Katie. "This is my medal," said Lisa, who had a difficult pregnancy with her first child.

"And this is my second," she added, pointing to her growing belly. "It's a boy, due this fall."

At Steamboat a bearded mountain-man stood in the finish chutes, directing traffic. Not one finisher in a hundred knew him as Benji Durden. He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team-to-nowhere, then ran a 2:09 marathon and reached the first World Championships in '83.

"I haven't raced in years," he said, "but I'm at a race almost every weekend. Last year Amie [his wife] and I handled 46 events."

One of the runners Benji guided into a chute at Steamboat was running under an assumed name. The announcer read it without commenting on her true identity.

I'll honor her wish for anonymity by not even giving the name she ran under in Colorado. One of America's all-time greats, she ran a 43-minute 10K this day.

She seemed to be thinking: I like being out here running and don't mind doing it slowly. I just don't want to be singled out for attention.

The ex-stars in this story all appear to be living well in their athletic after-life. They keep running, keep working at races in various capacities -- only in a quieter and less visible ways than before.


SUPPORTING ROLES

Those who stand and watch also participate. If you've gone to a marathon to support the runners you knew, to wait for their faces to appear in the crowd, then you've been involved too.

Standing and watching can stir your emotions in same ways that running does, and sometimes more. In your own races you have at least the illusion of control. But you can't run your friends' miles, which is why you worry for them.

Running for yourself, you focus on the little steps right in front you and those just taken. With friends you see how far they've come to get to mile zero of a marathon, and you know how getting through 26.2 will change them in ways they don't yet know.

Each year I watch former students of mine, from running classes at the University of Oregon, graduate into marathons. They took their early steps with me, then passed their final and most vital exam by continuing to run on their own. Marathoning was their idea and the training of their design, not mine.

At their marathon start I feel more nervous for them than I'd felt before all of my own marathons combined. At their finish I shed more tears for them than for all of my races.

We who stand and watch also serve. We cheer the runners who do what we once did, giving them support that we once received.

We show the passers-by that what they do does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. No one knows them better than one who has passed this way before.

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