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Jim Murray

26 Miles Means a Lot to Them, but Not to Him

March 04, 1986|Jim Murray

Marathon running is great if:

--You're a zebra.

--You're not going to need your feet for a while.

--You're trying to get away from a forest fire or you just robbed a bank.

--You have the heart rate and body temperature of something that lives at the floor of the Bering Sea.

Personally, I wouldn't run 26 miles if they gave me the Bank of England. It's un-American. The American credo is, "Never run if you can walk, never walk if you can ride, and if you want to race, get a horse." No one should go that far in an upright position.

It's well to remember that the original marathoner, Pheidippides, fell dead at the finish line.

But none of this stops the modern American man or woman from taking to the streets in division numbers every time they put up a medal. Big cities on marathon day in this country look like the world's biggest prison bustout, or Bonaparte's retreat.

Where do they come from? Well, that's probably the biggest collection of nonathletes ever to show up anywhere in shorts, chemises and headbands. They are housewives, truck drivers, shoe clerks, accountants, plumbers, chorus girls. About 10 of them have any idea what they're doing. They're known in the trade as the elites.

The others are pushed by the promise of better complexions, better love lives, thinner hips, bluer eyes, blacker hair, more teeth, improved sight, keener hearing, perpetual youth. How can you get old running down a street? How can gray hair and hearing aids and heart batteries catch up to you?

Marathons look, in some medical circles, more like 50,000 people bucking for a heart attack. "There's been some damage done," concedes Rod Dixon, Olympic bronze medalist and winner of the 1983 New York Marathon.

It looks easy. It isn't. At 20 miles, a man becomes less than a man. He becomes a thing. He's on automatic pilot. He's like a climber gasping up the last few meters of Everest. His "oxygen debt" is approaching the national. His breath comes in daggers, his lungs feel as if they are in a vise. If his feet are moving, he doesn't know it because his brain is no longer running the show.

One of the most famous sports photos of all time shows British officials in the 1908 Olympics helping the all-but-unconscious Italian marathoner, Dorando Pietri, across a finish line. He looks like something that just fell out of an airplane.

Why do they do it?

"Well," says Dixon. "people accept that they can't run the 100 in 9 seconds or vault 20 feet, but nobody's willing to say he can't run as far as you can. People don't like to think they'd quit.

"Look around this room. I bet if you did a quick check around these tables you would find 50% of these people here have either run a marathon or know somebody who has. And they say, 'Your cousin has run a marathon? Well, if he can, I can!' "

The invention of the automobile pretty much took Americans out of marathoning. So much so that evolutionists took to predicting that the race would be born with wheels instead of legs by the 21st Century.

We left the sport pretty much to Ethiopian shepherds and Czechoslovakian letter carriers. Until Frank Shorter became the first American to win the marathon in 64 years at the Munich Olympics.

Now, marathoning has become a semi-craze and no city can consider itself big time until it has a marathon it can call its own. You might have a zoo, a ball team, a Rembrandt, opera house or symphony, but unless you have a marathon, you're Bridgeport.

L.A. will get in the spirit of things this weekend with a marathon of its very own. It will begin modestly--8,000 are expected to straggle out through downtown and out along Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, down through the Wilshire district and back to the Coliseum.

There are not likely to be any Rosie Ruizes among them. No subways. In this town, running may be the only rapid transit you can get between Sunset and Fairfax and the Coliseum.

The marathon has become America's race. For a city that has been host to two Olympic Games and has an athletic tradition all over the world to uphold, it's embarrassing not to have a bigger and better marathon than anyone else. After all, what do they know about running in New York?

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