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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.
The Boston 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 camera."
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.
"Are youse 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.
Occasionally you 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."
Long-distance 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 direction.
Another more 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.