After Boston

There is nothing sensible about running a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do. There appears to be a physiological upper limit of tolerance to distance running. At some point around 35 kilometres most runners experience a steep falling away in efficiency. Sports physicians suggest humans were not made to complete a marathon distance, which is a little over 42 kilometres.  
 
People die running marathons. While most do not die, or even suffer serious or lasting harm from the marathon, even a single death is one too many, given that there is no need, no practical purpose, to completing the full distance.
 
Running marathons is not even an efficient means to attaining physical fitness; you can achieve equal fitness with brisk walking as with running, and the risk to life and joints is far lower when you walk.
 
Earlier in my own marathon running ‘career’ (a suggestive term: it isn’t a career in the sense of something I do for a living; something that runs off the rails is said to ‘career’) I had the opportunity to go for a training run with the great Rob De Castella in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier I had discussed with sports doctors my experience – common among marathoners – of slowing radically over the final 7 kms of the race. The physicians had suggested that human beings weren’t meant to run that distance: there was the physiological limit I referred to earlier. De Castella, himself a sports physiologist, was educated by the Jesuits at Xavier College in Melbourne. 
After our run, exquisitely taxing at that altitude, I put the same question to De Castella. It was the Jesuit rather than the physiologist who answered: “If human beings gave up just when something became difficult we wouldn’t achieve very much, would we?”
 
That is the answer. In that nutshell is the reason that Paris and London will see tens of thousands compete in their respective marathons next weekend. It is for that reason that we love to do what we hate. I have run and hated and loved forty three marathons, in places as diverse as Boston and Alice Springs. I hope to run more.
 
If the marathon runner defies physiology the marathon watcher defies sense. In all weathers she stands outdoors and watches an endless, anonymous train of athletic mediocrities, watches for hours on end, feeding these strangers everything from jelly snakes to orange segments to fried snags. At her side her small child claps everyone who lumbers past. Her teenage daughter holds a placard that reads: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS.
 
My mother knew nothing of sport. Her lack of knowledge stood her in good stead for the marathon, indeed for any sporting event she witnessed. At the time of the Melbourne Olympics Mum took us kids to the fencing. She knew only that the swords were not lethal weapons, that the fencers’ precious eyes were safe. Those facts were enough for Mum. She barracked for the victor, she urged on the vanquished. She loved them both equally and generously.
 
IN 1956 the Olympic marathon course led from Melbourne to Dandenong and back to the MCG. The route followed the Princes Highway, which passed the end of our street. Mum stood and cheered every contestant on the way out and waited for their return. By that stage the runners were jaded and strung out. The leaders too were well separated. As the runners passed our street an American was leading. Coming second or third and looking tragic (in a way I came to recognize in my adult life) was a New Zealander. “Good on you, Kiwi”, were Mum’s words from the empty kerbside, a distance of only a couple of feet from the runner. Mum’s sweet urgings encouraged the runner, who visibly accelerated. Later Mum would say, “I helped him to win.” In fact the Kiwi did not win – Mum was no stickler for small facts – but she put her finger on a larger truth: he was a winner: he finished. He did his best.
 
It is in Boston that the runner and the spectator most truly meet. There the amateur runner is embraced by the uncritical spectator. She too is an amateur. She hasn’t a clue who is favoured to win; she has twenty seven thousand favourites; she loves them all. A literal amateur. Extraordinary statistic: of a population of three million persons in the greater Boston area, one million spectators come out to watch the race. The spectator comes out and she remains there, cheering, clapping, waving placards, uselessly feeding, encouraging every last pathetic struggler, every finisher, every champion. These three, as she well understands, are one and the same.
 
She was there, this ignorant dame, when I sailed past her, full of hope, energy, crowd fever and coffee early in last year’s race. She was there as I struggled up Heartbreak Hill. She was there in Boylston street to see the winners – man, woman, wheelchair champions (both genders) – as they crossed the line. She was there when the first bomb went off. Was it the first bomb or the second that took her life? I do not know. 
 
I know this: she will be there again this year when the race is run again; there in her thousands at the start, in her tens of thousands in the middle, in her weaving, praying throngs through the weary late stages, there among the ecstatic crowds that squeeze joyously at the kerbside as crazed runners find speed for the final gallop along Boylston Street. She’ll be hoarse and weeping as the untalented race along those cobblestones in their ragtag glory, arms pumping, heads high, fists aloft as they cross the line.
 
And what of the runners? We are wiser now. Inevitably, sadder. Running – that senseless frolicking of supposed adults will never be the same.
A record field will contest Boston in 2014. Terror will enjoy its limited success – some attention for a cause, or as seems likely in this case, no clear cause; some increased security, some minor oppression of amenity and civic liberty – but the lovers of Boston will meet and embrace as they always do, at this, their festival.
Running, our ceremony of joy, now sanctified, will always be the same, that familiar pointless folly. 
 

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