April 28, 2006

Marathon Poses Ultimate Test

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To paraphrase a great athlete, for a runner, the marathon is the ultimate challenge.

For most people, it is sheer insanity.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to run a marathon? Why not undertake a cool extreme challenge, like glacier climbing or big-wave surfing? Surviving a hunting trip with Dick Cheney would surely bring the same sense of accomplishment.

After all, running alone is hardly a sport. It requires little discernible skill. Real athletes run to train for real sports, sports that sell TV contracts and feature bobblehead dolls. In training for a marathon, you run in order to, well, run.

Finishing a marathon is one of those entries you find on the “Things to do before you die” lists, nestled somewhere between joining the mile-high club and planting a tree. Marathons also conjure up Zen advertising slogans like Addidas’ “Impossible is Nothing.” Songs like “Born to Run” and “Running Down a Dream” paint romantic images of breaking away from society’s bonds in one glorious expression of self-determination.

As usual, pop culture gets it all wrong. In fact, the marathon is the most excruciating form of torture – one that even the most masochistic among us vehemently shun.

A marathon is a 26.2-mile battle against the human body. It tests the physical and mental limits of the best-trained athletes in the world. It can consume your life, alienate your friends and crush your family. And it will cause you great, great pain.

Jerome Drayton, the Wayne Gretzky of marathon running, once said, “To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who’s never run it is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind.”

Last Sunday, the 26th annual London Marathon was held along the river Thames. We descended on the race – which curved along the river, over the Tower Bridge and past the Houses of Parliament – to find out exactly how crazy these people really were.

First, we were introduced to the mystique of the marathon. Perhaps it was just the omnipresent fog blanketing the city, but that morning there seemed to be a celestial, almost supernatural vibe surrounding the runners. With Big Ben looming in the background, the marathoners came forth through shadows and clouds like Dickensian villains.

Not long after, we came face to face with the unique corporatism of the marathon. In every direction, some wellness company or charitable organization peddled their cause to anyone who would listen. They enhanced their gimmicks with brightly colored posters and absurd animal costumes. A panda and an elephant, linked arm in arm, cornered us and coaxed out three pounds and twenty pence, allegedly for the “Children with Leukemia” foundation.

We then witnessed the ruthlessness of the race itself. Jade Goody – the star of the UK’s “Big Brother” – withdrew after the 18th mile. At the 20th mile, some of the runners collapsed from exhaustion. The naive smiles and looks of determination at mile six had been replaced by faces contorted in agony. With Buckingham Palace – and the finish – only a few miles ahead, Drayton’s ominous words seemed to seep into the haggard eyes of the marathoners.

What is truly unique about the marathon is the crowd. For every meter of the race, hundreds of onlookers squeezed next to the ropes to urge on the beleaguered runners. One woman held up a sign saying “James, surely these are grounds for divorce?” Other fans threw bacon bits at British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey as he ran by (his time was 3:46:10). But overwhelmingly, the fans pushed the marathoners each step of the way.

People cheered for runners they didn’t know. When one female runner staggered with a cramp, two people from the crowd leapt to her aid and helped her back on the course. Any time a marathoner slowed, walked, or looked on the verge of demise, a rousing chorus of English accents implored them to continue.

As the Queen – who, along with Shakespeare, celebrated a birthday on the day of the race – watched the athletes cross the finish in front of the Victoria Memorial, one could not help but be inspired by the scene. With arms outstretched or raised high in the air, the finishers accepted glistening foil blankets and glasses of Lucozade. A runner with the Irish flag around his waist accepted a Guinness from his mate in the rest area. Friends, family, and strangers alike stopped to congratulate all of those who won, finished, or simply put a number on their chest.

For all of the inhuman pain suffered throughout, the marathon turned out to be one of the most inspirational demonstrations of humanity.

And there are only 190 days left until New York.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Triphas appeared every other Friday this semester.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen