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

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 05:18:45 -0400

Standing and Watching

RUNNING COMMENTARY 945

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This was the first, from September 2004.)

When asked to move my byline from another magazine to this one, I quickly agreed, but then privately asked myself: Do I really belong here? You readers are justified in asking: How well can he speak to our interests?

You’re right to wonder: What are his credentials, not as a writer but as a runner? You 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 M&B 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 racing is 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 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 1960s, 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 separate themselves from rest of us while they are competing at their fastest. Not until their pace slows or their racing stops do the formerly best truly join the rest.

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 1992, 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 talked 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 this was 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 1983. “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 unmasking her here.

One of America’s all-time great marathoners, 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.

EXERCISES IN PATIENCE

My day in Portland, Oregon, started with an early wakeup call – not from an operator downstairs at the Hilton but from the next room. This had to be a marathoner. Who else would be so busy and noisy before dawn on a Sunday morning? My wakeup at that hour wasn’t unwelcome. I too wanted the seven o’clock Portland Marathon start to hurry up and arrive.

I wouldn’t run a step this day. Sunday is my usual day off from running, a traditional if not Biblical day of rest each week. All I had to do at this marathon was watch others complete a journey begun months earlier.

Runners throughout this hotel and others woke to the day they’d planned for and worried about all year. I looked out the window an hour before starting time and saw runners warming up on the dark streets. As they wasted steps that would be needed later, their impatience was showing.

This restlessness was contagious, as I also left the hotel too early. While walking to the start area, I passed a church. Chiseled in concrete on one wall was the line, “Run with patience the race that is set before us.” I wasn’t religious enough to know then if this was a line from the Bible. (It comes, I learned later, from Hebrews 12:1.) But it spoke clearly and wisely to all runners, and especially to marathoners. Marathons are exercises in patience. Gratification is long delayed.

The hardest part of the race is getting to the starting line, which is why so many more people say they’ll run a marathon than actually do it. The months of training test a runner’s patience. Injuries and illnesses happen, weather turns uncooperative, family and job conflicts arise, training partners drop out. The patient runner keeps training.

More testing of patience comes in the final several hours. Notice that if you split the word “patience” in the middle and drop a few letters you get “pace.” These two running virtues, patience and pace, are this closely related. Race day becomes an exercise in pacing, when a runner intent on averaging nine-minute miles must fight impatience that could cause starting at sevens.

At the Portland Marathon start I watched thousands of marathoners pass by. I had stood talking with a stranger but now broke off the conversation as a choke came to my voice. Back at the hotel a little later my wife Barbara asked, “Did you see anyone you knew at the starting line?” I mentioned just one by name.

After thinking about this response, I amended it to include the thought that had choked me up earlier: “You might say that I knew all the runners by what it took them to get here, what it will take to get through their marathon, and what they will take away from this day as lessons and memories.”

UPDATE: Shortly after this column appeared in Marathon & Beyond, I began in-person coaching of marathoners for the first time. They soon inspired me to enter another marathon myself. These will be future subjects here.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, will be serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting this September.]
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