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"Don't tell me you're still feeding your gut," I think, but don't say so, because I possess more tact than courage.
Almost as dangerous is the old friend who has long since accepted your hobby but in a gathering of strangers forgets that others may not possess an equally liberal mind. "I saw you running in the park the other night," he says with a friendly smile.
Clear across the room it is as though the strap holding Jayne Mansfield's evening gown had just snapped. "My husband runs the marathon," my wife explains. She might just as well have told them I was a Buddhist priest. A dozen tongues click and the women look with sympathy at my wife. Having a husband who is a marathon runner seems infinitely worse than one who is an alcoholic or a mere adulterer.
After facing the menacing fangs of dogs in the parks and the equally menacing fangs of Martini sippers at parties, it thus comes as quite a relief to the runner to be able to shed his clothes and compete in a race where, if not adjudged completely insane, he at least is considered only moderately odd. Such a race is the marathon.
The race owes its existence to a Greek courier named Pheidippides, who in 490 B.C. ran from the plains of Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory over an invading Persian army. "Rejoice, we conquer," he gasped, dropping dead and thereby doing irreparable damage to the Greek image of physical fitness. With the Olympic revival in 1896, a Greek shepherd named Spiridon Louis wandered down out of the hills to win the gold medal in a race following the approximate path of Pheidippides.
But neither Pheidippides nor Louis ran the present distance of the marathon. Poor out-of-shape Pheidippides covered a mere 22 miles and 1,500 yards and Louis' route was about 25 miles. When the Olympics came to London in 1908 the British moved the starting line back to Windsor Castle so the royal family could watch the start of the race from their royal balcony. Windsor Castle just happened to be 26 miles and 385 yards away from where the race would end in the Olympic stadium. Britain no longer sets the standards for the world, but on this point she prevailed. Now, whenever a present-day marathoner slogs footsore past the 25-mile mark he always mutters under his breath, "God save the Queen" (or words to that effect).
Impressed with the 1896 Olympic race, Boston Athletic Association Team Manager John Graham imported the marathon to the U.S. in the following year. Fifteen runners appeared at the start, and any distance runner in this country who has ever amounted to anything has either consciously or subconsciously yearned to come home first in Boston ever since.
What can attract so large a group of intelligent men to so materially unrewarding an experience? (The modest prizes include trophies for the first 10 finishers and medals for the next 25.) John Gray, a schoolteacher from Walpole, Mass., sent out a questionnaire to 100 runners and received 66 replies. Among other things he discovered that the average marathoner had run about 2,000 miles the past year. The lowest total reported was 230 miles, the highest Mike O'Hara's 5,100. The average respondent had raced the full marathon distance 14 times, five of them in Boston. O'Hara finished 100 races, a record. On the average, the marathoner was 32 years old, figured he would run for another 19 years, with Nat Cirulnick stating flatly, "I intend to compete for 58 more years, until I'm 90."
Statistics don't mean much, of course. The runner's own words express the real appeal of marathoning better. Dr. Leon Kruger, a 41-year-old pediatrician and a far-back finisher in Boston, told Gray, "Running makes me feel different from men who don't run. I'm more conscious of living rather than just existing."
Sam Ouelette, a 58-year-old janitor from Maine, has finished in Boston 18 times and has three sons who have finished a total of 13 times in a great demonstration of marathoning togetherness. Sam says, "I've never been told I was too old or not good enough, like they say in team sports. If a person wants to stay young, compete the year around."