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CULTURE

December 7, 2017

The Beauty and Carnage of the Marathon

I haven’t come within 10 miles of running the marathon distance. I have, however, spent the last month of my life basically bathing in the marathon culture. I was at the finish line of the New York City Marathon when Shalane did the damn thing. And I spent last weekend hobnobbing around Sacramento for the 35th California International Marathon with a press credential hanging around my neck granting me more access than I rightfully deserved.

From the outside looking in, the whole point of a marathon for most people was to just finish. If that’s the case, then a marathon was only a few steps removed from being a hot dog eating contest. There had to be more.

When I got to the starting line of the CIM it was still dark, not yet 6 AM. The PA was blaring Imagine Dragons at a skull-shattering volume, but no one seemed to mind.

I caught whiffs of conversations — stories of preparation or lack thereof. There were runners sitting on the curb, applying what my nose positively identified as Icy Hot, or some other menthol knock-off. But Icy Hot wasn’t the only goo. I saw runners rubbing various shmears and semi-solids into any nook or cranny that carried even a scintilla of a doubt about its ability to stay chafe-free. I’m positive most of the product names ended in GLIDE.  Overall, the atmosphere was jovial. Selfie sticks and chuckling and groups in matching t-shirts abound.

The only place where things felt panicked, maybe even desperate, was near the port-o-potties.

In New York, I heard rumors of the Verrazano Bridge running yellow with urine by the time the 50,000 some runners clear the area. In Sacramento, the announcer repeatedly warned people to please respect the neighbors and keep their pre-race ones and twos in the port-o-potties.

I imagine the warning provided a chicken and egg type moment for some of the more refined folks. Had the thought of skipping the line and shitting in someone’s yard occurred to them before the announcer made them privy to the practice?

My assignment for the race was to sit in the elite women’s lead van and observe. We had the back doors swung wide open for maximum visibility and relied on bungee cords stretched within an inch of their lives to keep them ajar.

The marathon doesn’t really get interesting until the element of disaster knocks on the door. This starts to happen at roughly mile ten. And since both men and women started at the same time, the women’s lead van was a perfect vantage point for the back-of-the-pack men’s race (also, Sara Hall was the only female runner we saw that day, as she ended up winning by over two whole minutes).

Now, I’ve seen folks having bad races before: someone maybe 30 seconds behind at the end of a steeplechase or having a little lie down at the end of a 10K. But nothing compares to the face of a marathoner having a bad day. Waking up in the middle of mile 16 and realizing that you, covered in salt, mouth like a dried sponge, still have ten miles to go is probably something not too far off from a religious experience.

We passed runners with sullen, lifeless faces, the skin around their eyes a bright pink that gave the impression of a freshly powdered corpse. I watched one guy try to suck whatever he could out of a GU packet and then nearly vomit it back up. Around mile 20 we passed a man covered in his own filth. Later we learned he had shit his pants at mile eight and went on to run somewhere around 2:16. A pretty decent trade-off, if you ask me.

We passed the runners who called it quits. Some sitting on the curb holding an ailing body part, others walking with their hands on their hips, looking for answers in the pavement beneath their feet. When we went by our driver apologized for not being able to pick them up, but assured them that the “meat wagon” was coming.

Other people we passed were having far more impressive outings. There were runners who, at mile 20, looked like they had just started their engines. They had the wide-eyed look of an animal in a trap, probably hungry, probably closer to death than they knew but running with a ravenous energy in an attempt to jump-start their depleted limbs.

And then there was the finish line.

Some people were jubilant, but most just kind of stopped running — like Forrest Gump in the end zone. They had vacant looks on their faces, stood bleary and blinking, coming to terms with the trauma they had just inflicted on their bodies.

At the end of it all, while we CITIUS boys were making our way back to the elite athlete area, I looked at them and without a hint of irony said, “I’m tired.”

We sat around drinking coffee in the cafeteria as the elite runners started to filter in. Limping, wet, perhaps in shock, we greeted a handful of them, spoke earnestly with the ones we knew and congratulated anyone that approached our table.

I couldn’t pretend to understand what they went through. A washed-up runner cursing his cramped calves after a 5K fun run, and a woman who can’t walk up stairs because she brought her body to the brink and continued to burn are two completely different things.

I now understand the fundamental difference between running marathons and running anything shorter. There didn’t look to be anything inherently fun about running a marathon. Stringing together a good training block can be fun. But the fun really isn’t in the 20 mile long runs or the solo workouts in the pitch black morning. The fun is filling in those consecutive days in the running log, maybe enjoying a beer afterward and feeling like you earned it.

Any fun you were probably having wears off somewhere between a week before the race and right before the gun goes off. I saw the faces of every elite athlete before the start. Existential dread could be one way to describe it, a duck on the pond could be another.

A lot of fuss was made about the bathrooms in the elite staging area. These 100 or so elite athletes were all fawning over the 20 pristine port-o-potties they had to themselves. If you’re engaging in a supposedly fun activity but the best thing you can say about it is that the bathrooms were great, maybe you should reconsider your definition of fun.

The entertainment value of a marathon — the crux of this entire thing — is best compared, I think, to the episode of Seinfeld called “The Dealership.”

Do you remember? This is the episode where Kramer and some poor schmuck of a salesman see how far they can take the car before it runs out of gas.

In the beginning, the car salesman doesn’t understand what Kramer is doing. He’s nervous. Agitated, even.

“How low are you gonna go?”

“Oh, I’ve been below the slash a number of times. This is nothing. Just put it out of your mind.”

Eventually, the car salesman comes around, screaming that he’s never felt so alive, that they can’t stop now, that they need to see how far this thing goes on empty. To him, it was life-changing.

That’s the only reasonable answer I could come up with. The fun isn’t in the act itself but seeing what you can find on your way to the bottom of the well. Maybe it’s a gear you never knew existed. Maybe it’s a dark place where you question every decision you ever made. But in the end, if you make it to the end, you’ll have accomplished something. Was it fun? Was it worth it? I guess that’s for you to decide.

After the race, I hung around Sacramento waiting for my flight, feeling inadequate. All around me people had just participated in a facet of the running world that I was only partner to. It was a self-imposed exile, I suppose, as nothing is stopping me from running a marathon other than thinking that I might die if I tried. But slowly, over the hours waiting for my plane, I made up my mind. I became Kramer’s car salesman: bearing witness to this crazed phenomenon, I desperately wanted to partake and see, finally, how far I could go before the needle breaks off.

December 6, 2017

Book Review and Author Interview: The Complete History of Cross-Country Running

The Complete History of Cross-Country
Running: From the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day

by Andrew Boyd Hutchinson
Publication on January 16, 2018 (pre-order available from Amazon.com)

How can cross country have a history? It’s such a simple sport. We race from here to there, regardless of what footing or obstacles are in the way. It has to be as old as humanity itself. And if you believed that, as I did before reading this book, you would be wrong.

Cross country running in the way that we now know it came from a game called “hares and hounds”, a sort of a reverse anthropomorphism of the upper-class foxhunt, played by young men at England’s schools and universities in the 19th century. That is where Hutchinson’s book begins, and from there it goes on a wild run over hill and dale. It follows the development of the sport from quirky intramurals to university and club teams and national and international competition, as it spread out over the globe.

Books exist to trace the history of running, and of track and field, and of marathoning, but until now none have traced the history of cross country. Hutchinson did a massive amount of research to unearth stories of long-forgotten athletes and races that illustrate the colorful history of a sport that still defies standardization, and he covers every part of it that you can think of (plus plenty you won’t until you read it).

First-time author Hutchinson avoids the potential pitfall in an extensive work like this, a presentation that is encyclopedic rather than narrative. Fittingly for a book about cross country it’s long. It is organized by decades with a deep look at a feature race in each chapter. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the broad scope of the book allowed Hutchinson to occasionally miss minor details that would give a broader understanding (example: a runner identified merely as “E.A. Montague” is in fact Aubrey Montague, whose letters to his mother from the 1924 Olympics narrate Chariots of Fire). The book is best consumed like one of those epic Ken Burns documentaries: one episode at a time.

The book has not yet hit the market and won’t until a few weeks after Christmas, but pre-order is available. If the runner on your shopping list is willing to wait a few weeks (even if that runner is you), I heartily recommend this book as a gift for fans of every stripe.

I asked Hutchinson a few questions about his efforts.

Squire: This was a massive effort of research and writing. What inspired you to take it on?

Hutchinson: In 2012 I was in my fourth year as a high school history teacher (simultaneously pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts at Stanford where they needed an “undiscovered topic of personal interest” for my dissertation), and I was coaching a team of 60 cross-country athletes for the school.

In November that year, as I was preparing the team yearbook for our cross-country season, I wanted to include some sport history for context. Couldn’t find anything definitive. A few hobbyist’s websites, Wikipedia had about three total sentences (a stub! It even mentioned cross-country in the Olympics, which was new info to me, and sounded awesome), and a few really enticing PDFs on the LA87 site.

I was shocked. I had grown up reading the “Illustrated History of Football” and the like, but figured every major sport had to have a volume sitting on the library shelf. There wasn’t one for cross-country. So I decided to take time away from teaching, use my savings to live frugally, start at Stanford’s library, and become the expert needed to write the story myself. What transpired over the course of the next few years was this book, and candidly, now seeing how much time and effort was needed for research, I know why it never happened before.

I wrote it chronologically, and each decade seemed more extensive than the last. Many Friday evenings and weekend afternoons were sacrificed spent writing, and I eventually came back to teaching…Supplementing that job working the front desk at a local gym at 5 in the morning so I could spend a few hours before school writing without being disturbed too much. There were a lot of 12 hour days, but the outcome was absolutely worth it.

Squire: You said you were surprised to discover that cross country had once been in the Olympics. What were some of the bigger “gee, I didn’t know that” moments in research? And what were the most epic races that you never knew had taken place?

Hutchinson: I quickly learned that USA Track and Field (and therefore most reputable bodies along with them) had erroneously recorded the first U.S. Cross Country National Championship as being in 1890. This has been the result of Spalding’s Sports Almanac a short time after the turn of the century, and they unknowingly wiped out seven years of official championships prior to that year. It wasn’t until I started at that year of the championship and discovered in news articles that it was the seventh year of running it that it caused me to go back and verify.

That time period also had some gaps in the championship record, which were the result of a lawsuit between the organization that hosted the “Team” national championship in the spring, and the New York Athletic Club, which hosted the “Individual” championship in the fall. The end result destroyed both iterations of the event and it disappeared in the 1890s for awhile. Very reminiscent of the talk about Foot Locker and NXN by today’s audience, although there have been no lawsuits… just further proof that history always repeats itself.

One race-related nugget uncovered was the secret success of Emil Zatopek as a cross-country runner, which had been almost completely forgotten up until a few years ago. His appearance at the “Cross de L’Humanité” in France saw upwards of 70,000 spectators, and Zatopek didn’t always win! (The biggest shock of all). His appearance in XC, along with Kip Keino and Jim Ryun also running 10K XC during their prime were surprising tidbits that had been overlooked before.

Squire: These days runners tend to specialize even more than they used to, but almost no one specializes in cross country. Was there a runner you discovered who was dominant in cross country but otherwise very little-known?

Hutchinson: Pat Porter fit this profile. Here was a guy who ran NCAA DII for Adams State, came up at a time with the Salazars and the Herb Lindsays and the Craig Virgins and absolutely DOMINATED cross-country. For nearly 20 years he was a podium finisher domestically, and internationally did well despite facing raw African talent and very good European talent. No one else came close.

These days you’ve got Chris Derrick, Garrett Heath, and to a lesser extent Joe Gray and Max King— guys who train in the mud and trails and throw down on the tracks and roads occasionally, but aren’t winning major marathons or Olympic medals.

The U.S. women have done better to preserve the ideology that cross-country is a worthy competition tool to find stardom elsewhere. Molly Huddle, Jenny Simpson, Shalane Flanagan have shown this, as did the Deena Kastors and Lynn Jennings of yesteryear.

Squire: I hear all kinds of gimmicks thrown around for bringing the elite international side of cross country back to prominence, but to me the essential and timeless parts of cross country are team competition and a difficult course. Do you have any thoughts or ideas?

Hutchinson: Winter Olympic inclusion.

The IAAF is in favor, but the IOC maintains any sport for consideration must be practiced on “snow or ice”.

Instead of creating an exception, the IAAF really ought to bring cross-country to a three-race “tour” of Norway, Iceland, or Switzerland in the traditional winter and spring months to officially sanction a 10K national team permit series (to supplement their current one). With drug testing and sponsorship to finance, it would meet all necessary criteria for Olympic inclusion that way, and would allow African nations to be better represented at the Winter Games.

Thelma Wright of Canada agrees (she sits on the IAAF XC panel), and is pushing hard for Vancouver to host NACAC (or Pan-Am) XC first, then Worlds eventually, so it can be done.

With World XC every two years now, the insertion of an Olympic XC event would catapult the sport back into the spotlight.

Moreover, professional athletics could also benefit from an all-discipline sports standing, that factors trail and road performance alongside track monetary purses. That way athletes would have more of an incentive to compete in a range of races to earn coveted prizes.

There is a lot that COULD be done, but many of the necessary actors to make it happen already have their hands full.

Squire: Cross country is a sport in which the venue has as much or more personality as the competitors. After writing this book, is there a course that you’ve never been to that you really want to run on?

Hutchinson: Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. Or racing Wimbledon Common [London], as I’ve visited but never competed there.

Squire: Final question: if you could go back in time and watch just one race which appears in your book, which one would it be?

Hutchinson: Pre and Lindgren in 1969 at the first PAC-8 XC Conference Champ. The best race Garry Hill ever saw (editor of Track and Field News). Would’ve been amazing to see live.

November 27, 2017

Scott Fauble is starting a movement. And yes, it has to do with burritos.

Scott Fauble details his obsession with burritos, Mexican food and how you can join his movement. It all started at Boulevard Tacos.

November 27, 2017

The Blue Collar Runner: An oral history

This is a story of a blue collar runner, 30 beers, a Fourth of July parade, and a neverending march towards glory. It all started…

November 10, 2017

Running with Men

Jeanne Mack reflects on her New York City Marathon experience and the one encounter that stood out to her during her race.

November 6, 2017

2017 NYC Marathon Race Report: Not my best but the best

Chris Chavez reflects on his run at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon, where he ran with his best friend Pete Cashin for his first marathon.

October 30, 2017

Kenya Keep Up: Off To Africa In Search Of Fitness

What happens when four Bristol University (UK) graduates head to Kenya to train and chase their Olympic dreams? We’re about to find out.

October 27, 2017

From Frankfurt, with love: my current relationship with running.

Stephen Kersh reflects on traveling out to Frankfurt, Germany to watch a race that he won’t be running in due to a calcaneus stress fracture.

October 25, 2017

Four-time winners of major international race test positive for PEDs

A huge story is developing out of the United States as several members of one of a sport’s most dominant team have tested positive for PEDs.

October 20, 2017

Milwaukee (Almost) Marathon Messes Up Two Years In A Row

The Milwaukee Marathon’s course was too long in 2016 and now it was too short in 2017. People are upset and they should be.

October 19, 2017

The Great Bun Banning Debate of 2017

A parent has started a petition over girls XC uniforms and possibly banning the brief-style bottoms. There’s a more important conversation to have.

October 19, 2017

Finally Processing My Day At The Berlin Marathon

Chris Chavez takes us through his day at the 2017 Berlin Marathon, where he ran a 16-minute personal best. He will also be running the NYC Marathon.

October 10, 2017

Bad Oscar Pistorius film set to debut on Lifetime, nobody is happy

Not only does the upcoming Oscar Pistorius Lifetime movie look pretty bad, it’s also fairly insensitive to the victim’s family and is facing a lawsuit!

September 19, 2017

An adult man’s humble quest to run a sub-3:30 marathon while training like an idiot

A text message exchange with his brother has set Nicolas Smith on a mission to run a 3:30 marathon running no more than 5 miles per run.

August 31, 2017

Between Oasis’s Gallagher brothers, who’s the superior jogger?

For as long as there has been Oasis, there has been the obvious question, “Which Gallagher brother do you like better?” Well we have thoughts

August 25, 2017

LeBron James opens as betting favorite for mile vs. Gladwell

LeBron James opens as the favorite for the hypothetical mile race that has been discussed against New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

August 22, 2017

How fast can LeBron James run a mile? Faster than you think

Citius Mag asks the question every runner has asked about other professional athletes since the beginning of time: how fast could LeBron James run a mile?

August 10, 2017

London jogger learns the hard way that pushing women in front of busses is bad

Whether you’re on pace to win a major marathon, or are simply out for a stroll, there is never a good reason to body check a woman off the sidewalk, and into traffic, nearly contributing to her-bus-induced-decapitation. It doesn’t matter if she is mildly obstructing your path. Nor does it matter if you’re having a rough day. You just should never push an innocent person in front of a moving bus. There are few absolutes in life. That is one of them.

But that’s just what one unnamed London Man did this week, tacking another negative pock mark on a running list of controversies surrounding the 2017 IAAF World Championships taking place in the same city. The incident took place in May, but footage was recently promoted publicly by police searching for a lead in the case.

I apologize in advance if I link to the British media’s equivalent of Infowars or something. I’m not well-versed in the UK’s media landscape.

But if you’d like to for some reason watch security cam footage of the incident in question, the Evening Standard has you covered. Don’t worry. A heroic and alert bus driver veered masterfully and the woman was unharmed.

“In THIS country, we release the names of people charged with crimes!”

After a months-long manhunt for the infamous London Jogger, he was apprehended and promptly arrested. (I didn’t write the book on British legal proceedings, but it strikes me as odd that the man’s name wasn’t released.)

Anyway. Let this serve as a warning to you assholes who might otherwise be tempted to shove folks in front of vehicles while you’re indignantly exercising. Crime doesn’t pay and you WILL be arrested.

July 31, 2017

#CitwitsRun200: Tracking two runners attempting to run a 200-mile week [UPDATED]

Zach Kughn and Ethan Wilhelm will attempt to run a 200-mile week from July 31 to Aug. 6. Follow and track their progress here & with #CitwitsRun200

July 24, 2017

Does David Blaine have the skills of an elite ultra marathon runner?

David Blaine’s dark eyes stare unblinkingly into yours, reaching out stoically from the confines of your computer screen and intoning the type of quiet, serious concentration you’d expect from a man whose profession is listed as magician.

Wait.

No.

That’s not David Blaine. That is Mitch Stilpa, an actor/comedian from an improv troupe in LA (what a terrible combination of words) whose parody videos of David Blaine’s street magic made a big splash on Funny or Die for a while. Stilpa does a hyperbolic of course, but pretty good impression of Blaine’s trademark destruction of the fourth wall, as he gazes directly into the camera after completing a trick.

The four parody videos have amassed over 78,000,000 views on YouTube, and as HuffPost put it back in 2011, Blaine’s “aesthetic and demeanor make him a pretty solid target for parody.” Magicians in general are rarely respected for their craft, and usually the butt of some jokes or at least emphatic eyerolls. And Blaine’s “Street Magic” concept, where he interacted with apparent strangers on the street for his breakthrough documentary in 1996, was especially ripe for riffing off of.

But while the world was chuckling to itself at David Blaine’s expense, Blaine was reinventing himself as more than just some sort of street vendor illusionist. He was becoming an endurance artist, a career path that involved him existing suspended in a block of ice for 62 hours straight, and spending 44 days sealed inside a glass box 30 feet above the ground in London. The accomplishment of these feats is the crux of my argument. Anyone who can put their body through such physical pain and suffering, who willingly endures extreme discomfort for long stretches of time for no real reason other than to prove that they can was practically born to be an ultra-marathoner. There is a very fine, pretty much nonexistent line between endurance artist and endurance athlete and I for one would love to see how Blaine’s talent as the former translates into his promise for the latter.

Blaine has transcended the realm of magic with most of his acts recently. There’s no real trick or deception going on in the feats he’s managed to pull off. The “magic” is just that he is able to force his body to do completely unnatural things. For example, Blaine’s trick where he eats glass–is actually him eating glass. The man is truly, physically consuming glass. He takes a bite out of a champagne flute and then chews. He bites down again and again, cutting his mouth all over, desecrating his poor chompers, and reducing the glass to little specks until he can swallow it. This type of mind-blowing pain tolerance lends itself easily to the kind of mentality a person covering almost four times the distance of a marathon without really stopping to sleep, and barely eating.

Not only is Blaine capable of withstanding pain over a long portion of time, but he also has a certain level of insanity that seems to be a prerequisite for becoming an ultra runner. He has done tricks that are downright stupidly dangerous. He’s caught a bullet in his mouth on stage, an actual bullet, from a real gun that he caught in a metal cup that he held in his mouth. The amount of confidence Blaine must have in himself in order to believe he can catch a bullet with a cup in his mouth without killing himself makes me think he would have the kind of self-belief important for running up and down steep, rocky trails by yourself for hours on end.

Blaine’s resume does also hint toward an innate aerobic ability. After training and working on techniques to do so, he successfully held his breath for 17 minutes underwater. Which makes me confident in his lung capacity to say the least.

As Ira Glass recently said of Blaine in a This American Life episode, “He works on these things for years, trains his body to do this stuff.” Sounds a lot like the life of an ultra runner to me.

July 17, 2017

Meet Jimmy Watkins: World Champs 800-meter runner turned touring musician

Welshman Jimmy Watkins has run 1:46 for the 800 and made a World Champs final. He’s also opened for Jeff Rosenstock. He’s the man. Get to know him.

July 12, 2017

Let’s Stop Running the Marathon

Stephen Kersh makes that the marathon is terrible and perfect and he loves it, but there are plenty of other ways to impress your co-workers.

July 11, 2017

The Olympics return to the U.S. – Some thoughts on Los Angeles getting the Summer Games

Some thoughts into the pros and cons behind the 2024 or 2028 Olympics that will be hosted in Los Angeles after the IOC agreed to award both Games in September.

July 8, 2017

Why a long running break might not cure your injuries

Taking time off after a long season is necessary to let your body recover, but we also tend to think of running breaks as a cure for injuries.

July 3, 2017

The Atlanta Track Club is saving an old track through performance art

The warm up track has fallen into a state of disrepair since the 1996 Olympics. The Atlanta Track Club aims to remedy that through innovative fund raising.

June 28, 2017

Riding Pine: Long-Term Injuries and Finding Meaning in Running

Even after an injury, Jake Kildoo finds a meaning in running. Running can still be a source of solace when moving in another direction.

June 27, 2017

The greatest non-track running performances in the history of movies

A definitive ranking of the best running performances that did not take place on a track but that unfolded on movie screens.

June 20, 2017

How the Lost Boys Track Club of New York City broke two hours for the marathon

Breaking2NYC started as a means of contextualizing Kipchoge’s epic marathon but it took on deeper meaning for a crew of NYC runners.

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