Madness.  There is something about marathons that produce a madness in people.  Not just the runners and spectators, but everyone associated with the event: families, friends, colleagues at work, people you don’t even know.  Even the city, itself, the one hosting the event, loses itself to the insanity of what is about to occur.

The marathon is the last great, public spectacle.  Anyone can enter to run the twenty-six-point-two-mile race, and crossing the finish line is a goal shared by all: the elite runners, the wheel chair athletes, the joggers from suburbia, the crazy people who, like me, would travel thousands of miles to participate.  In the marathon everyone gets a chance.  When you are part of the thousands of runners waiting for the race to start, standing behind the elite athletes of the world, the Kenyans, Algerians, Russians, Mexicans, and British, you know, this is it.  This is the only one.  No matter what city, no matter what country: this is it.     

It is crazy how life-affirming it is. 

At the Health and Fitness Center, the gym to which I belong, the gym for geezers, the afflicted, and the obese, the trainers must have gotten the word out, perhaps they were using this — this challenge upon which I was about to embark — to motivate the others.  At the gym, people out-of-the-blue were coming up to me days before the race and wishing me luck — some as if they were in mourning, but many enthused by the excitement.  People I didn’t even know I knew or ever remember seeing.  I realized, a sort of madness had settled on the Center.  I was running not just to prove something to myself, which was stupid enough, but to them too: the seniors, the ones with bad knees, bad hearts, obesity, the ones who watched from afar on their stationary bikes and elliptical machines but never said a word. 

Now they were asking if I had done anything like this before.  Run a marathon.  When I said it had been more than twenty years, somehow, I was one of them.  After all, hadn’t we all been young and in shape and weren’t we all now old and decrepit, together fighting the culminating effects of death, the body decaying right before our eyes?  Was it really so mad to do something so crazy?    

I called my decision to run in the Chicago Marathon, my “Rip Van Winkle Effect.”

Somehow I had woken up from a caloric slide into oblivion and was attempting something I had done only twice back in my thirties:  back then, on the first occasion I barely finished the race and on the second, I ended up walking.  The first time, afterwards, I spent an hour huddled under a silver space blanket violently sick to my stomach while my wife and older brother searched for me in the surging crowd.  The second time, I stopped at Mile Eighteen totally exhausted.  Still, it was not like I could go home even though I had quit running.  I was in a strange city and nowhere near my car.  Sore and in pain I slowly walked the final eight miles to the finish line.  No vehicles that day picked up the injured, the exhausted, or the ones, like me, who had to be shown by the gods of racing they were mere mortals subject to the whims of the divine. 

Rip Van Winkle.  More like an Odd Odysseus. 

Twenty years later, I expected my aerobics buddies to be thrilled for me.  After all, these were the ones with whom I had participated in exercise classes night after night for more than two years.  However, I was surprised by the degree of their madness.  They too were caught up in the overwhelming nature of the goal I had set for myself, relating it to themselves.  

“There’s this guy at the gym,” they would say with pride to their spouses, or friends at the grocery store, at church, “who does aerobics classes with me every night.  This guy’s lost a ton of weight and, guess what, he is now running the Chicago Marathon! Is that crazy or what!  Anyhow, it just shows you…”

It just shows you, indeed.

Now they were asking me about my nightly runs: how did it go, how was I feeling, how many miles was I running?  Did I hear they too had just run two miles on the treadmill, five miles on the outside track?  Did I realize they too were pushing themselves, that we all were in this together.      

The night before my flight to Chicago, the aerobic regulars pulled me over and gave me a grand send-off, gifts I would need to face the insanity ahead: gator aid and goo packs for the run, muscle rub for afterward, even pom-poms for my wife Karen and college-age daughter Helen to cheer me ever-onward. 

Surprisingly, Shaun, my mountain climber friend, joined the group. 

“Plant a flag for me,” he said.

I could see it in their eyes, feel it surrounding me like a fog when we left that night, smell it thick in the air when Karen and I landed in the Windy City the next morning still several days before the race.

Chicago was filling up with runners and their families.  The shift was taking shape around the downtown hotels: the heavyset mid-West shoppers replaced by thin couples speaking Italian, Spanish, with English accents, wearing light-weight running shoes and well-worn training outfits.  The fashionable stores shifting over, manikins showcasing classy athletic apparel, sport-wear for the wealthy.  The city was alive: its citizens excited by the coming spectacle.  Soon runners would be driving in from the suburbs and other sites in the surrounding area: the flood of humanity swelling for Sunday’s run: 45,000 runners and millions of spectators splashing against the very fabric of the city. 

Looking out my hotel fifth-floor window, pre-dawn Saturday: Karen sleeping in bed behind me, Helen in her dorm room several miles away, runners down on the street passing by on early morning training runs.   The day before, Friday, I too was down there getting in seven miles.  Running to the park where the race would start.  Checking the distance from the hotel.  Feeling the temperature at that time in the morning.  Stretching my body and toughening my legs for the pounding that would take place in forty-eight hours.

This morning, I watched, rested and waiting.  I could feel it seeping in under the window, now cold against my skin, slowly, completely sinking in, taking over.  All of us together.  Let it begin. 



Categories: History of Running

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