Later, after the hot tub had soaked some of the pain from my legs, I hobbled to the bed and stretched out, enjoying being horizontal. Downstairs, John, our No. 6 son, put it to the rest of the family watching the Lakers-Bucks game. "If he's going to feel that bad," he asked, "why does he do it?"
Upstairs, I was asking myself the same question. Why suffer this way? Why run marathons when nine out of 10 of them end in a contest, the human will trying to push the human body beyond endurance? This one, the Jersey Shore Marathon, had been no different. The first 10 miles to Sea Bright had been a lark. Moving steadily along the coast with a strong south wind at my back was a fine way to spend a Sunday morning in January. Past Sea Bright, I had even picked up my pace, still feeling good and full of running.
The first hint of disaster came at the turnaround in the Gateway National Recreation Area. The 15-mph wind, hardly noticed when an ally, became a constant alien presence, reducing my speed and increasing my effort. It would give me no respite for the next two hours. Still, the legs felt fresh, the breathing good and the form under control. Sea Bright reappeared and disappeared in my wake.
Then, as quickly as it takes to write this, the cramps came. They started in both calves, then spread to the thighs, cutting my stride in half and making each step a painful decision. It was ridiculous, I told myself, to even think of finishing with seven miles to go. No one who knew how I felt right now could expect me to finish.
But I kept going, my progress getting slower and slower as I tested a variety of running forms that might permit movement without torture. Nothing helped, but the thought of quitting gradually receded from my mind. When the pain was particularly bad, I would breathe, "Oh, God"; more a statement than a prayer. And I took to counting my steps. Counting by ones seemed the highest mental activity I could perform. It also reassured me that I was moving and would after 4,500, or thereabouts, steps arrive at Convention Hall in Asbury Park.
Somehow, in all this torment, Allenhurst came and went. Deal Lake appeared, then the Convention Hall and then three of the longest blocks in the world to the finish. Three hours and 45 minutes after it started in ecstasy, the agony ended.
The marathon, I thought, as I lay there feeling warmer and healthier by the minute, is just not my race. True, I had not trained adequately for this one. I had not run more than 10 miles in one stretch since April and the last Boston Marathon. It was foolish to expect a good race on that amount of work. In the old days, maybe, but now, with age coming on and desire dying, it might be best to let the marathon go.
There were times in the beginning when the marathon, any marathon, seemed an impossible dream. When any race of more than five miles was beyond my imagination. My goals were more modest (a five-minute mile) and practical (physical fitness).
Subtly, insidiously, running became much more. Became, as exercise did for Oliver Alden, George Santayana's Last Puritan, a necessity. "To go a single day without two hours of rigorous outdoor exercise," wrote Santayana, "was now out of the question. It would have meant physical restlessness and discomfort indoors and the most horrible sensual moodiness in the inner man."
For Alden, the two hours of sculling or horseback riding brought him into genuine communication with nature, such as he never found in religion or poetry. And turned him for the moment, Santayana declared, into the gladdest, the most perfect and yet the most independent of people.