It is harder to
explain a marathon than to run one. I rediscover this each year as I get ready
for the Boston Marathon, which is to American road runners what the Masters is
to golfers, or what Wimbledon used to be to tennis players. And I realize anew,
almost with the startling suddenness of a crocus or snowdrop announcing
spring's verdant competitions that, much as I love my sport, it is somewhat
weird. Who but an idiot would race 26 tortured miles plus 385 yards for the
dubious distinction of finishing 38th? Well, a scholar would. Of the 200 or so
runners who will be at the starting line at noon on April 19 (which is
Patriots' Day, a holiday in Massachusetts) about 25 will have won their
master's or doctor's degree.
Marathon is relentlessly amateur. No one gets anything but glory from the race,
and who is responsible for keeping it pure? A professional sports figure—Walter
Brown, owner of the Boston Bruins and Celtics—and his father before him have
been carrying the race for 50 years, unchanged and uncommercialized.
I said glory.
Glory? I exaggerate. A third of a million politely applauding New Englanders
will line the course and the race will be reported in Boston and throughout the
rest of the world except, of course, in the U.S., where a junior high
potato-sack race commands more editorial attention.
The list of
paradoxes in distance running is long. It is reasonable, I suppose, that
Americans should be amused by the sport. I am not sure, however, that most of
his fellowmen should consider it their bounden duty to taunt the road racer
whenever he trots over the horizon. They do, though, and the distance runner in
America has become almost inured to the kidding, gentle or otherwise, that he
has had to endure in piling up hundreds and even thousands of miles in training
in order to compete successfully in a race like the Boston Marathon. Let the
marathon runner clad in sweat clothes step out onto a golf course or a park
sidewalk, and some comedian will roll down a car window to shout an Army
cadence: "Hup, two, three, four." This is a hilarious joke, at least as
funny as the one that breaks up photographers: "Her face will break your
The runner plods
on. People turn to stare and children, who have a legitimate reason for being
in the park without golf club in hand, ask questions: "Hey, you a
runner?" No, I'm a well-conditioned purse-snatcher, you think, but you
answer respectfully. "Are you training for that track meet?" asks
another (meaning the Pan American Games), and you answer, yes, even though you
are not good enough to make the team.
guys boxers?" a couple of tough-looking slum broads asked Lawton Lamb and
me once as we ran together in Chicago's Washington Park. (You would be
amazed—or would you?—at the number of people who consider it more worthy to
train for a fight than a road race.) Sure, we replied, afraid they might smash
us if we admitted being only trackmen. Lately a new question has been added:
"Hey, you running 50 miles?" The New Frontier has made even the
marathon almost respectable.
do run into a comment that is actually funny. Ted Corbitt, a distance man from
The Bronx, runs to the subway on his way to work as part of his training
program. One day a guy said to his friend as Corbitt jogged by, "Man, that
cat's late every morning."
runners don't fear children or even slum broads, because their teeth aren't
sharp—at least, not very sharp. Dogs are another matter. "Only two things
bother me when I'm running in Central Park," New York's Peter McArdle once
told me. "Dogs and policemen." I don't know about policemen, but at one
point or another all marathoners come to hate dogs—especially big, sleek, fast
dogs. Dogs distrust anyone who has two legs and runs. They reason, perhaps like
their masters, that the runner must be fleeing from someone or something.
They're right, too—he's escaping the dogs.
While in the Army
and training over in Germany one year, a German shepherd dog chomped through
three layers of clothing and put me out of commission for a week. He came
padding up behind me, his tail wagging, and I suspected nothing sinister until
he struck. After his teeth sank in I knew how the French had felt about
Alsace-Lorraine. Back in Chicago a few years later, another dog ran a good 200
yards across a park lawn to knock me down, thereby twisting my knee. He could
have finished me off if he was hungry. I was in the 14th mile of a hard workout
and in no mood to bite back. Still another hound chased over the frozen ice of
a pond one winter with my behind in his sights, but I thwarted him by climbing
a children's slide. I must have looked heroic. Fred Wilt used to carry a club
in one hand while running through the park to beat off dogs (and presumably
policemen), but I'm not as aggressive as Fred. Maybe that's why I never made an
Olympic team. Nowadays when I sniff dog flesh I retreat in the other
insidious hazard is the cocktail party—not the cocktails, but the people who
drink them. "Don't tell me you're still running," chortles the husband
of a schoolmate of my wife while munching on hors d'oeuvres.