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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.

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