Thoughts on the Marathon

In November 1983 I ran in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. Back then, the Marine Corps Marathon was only in its eighth year of existence. In that year, a comparatively paltry field of 8,604 runners showed up to run a race that followed a serpentine 26.2 mile course through the streets of the U.S. Capital. Considering that last year, 23,518 runners completed the race, the streets back in 1983 must have been relatively deserted.

Less than halfway through the race, I thought that I was finished, as my blood, perhaps thinned by training runs in the warm Florida sunshine, seemed to be slowly coagulating in the frigid winds that swept in across Haines Point, in Washington, D.C.’s East Potomac Park. My muscles tightened, and my fingers became too numb to feel the cold. My ears burned and a stiff headwind seemed to freeze the tears that welled up in the corner of my eyes.

Race officials pulled me into a tent for observation, thinking I was borderline hypothermic, and it looked for awhile as though I would be crossing the finish line courtesy of the straggler pick-up bus. But the short respite from the cold, along with a few sips of hot tea, revitalized my body and restored my determination to continue, so I slipped out of the tent and back into the race. A fortuitous change in wind direction, and a course that led back toward the warmer streets of the city were undoubtedly responsible for my eventual crossing of the finish line under my own power.

It was a day in my life that I recall with amazing clarity, probably due to the large amount of oxygen surging through my blood stream, and into my brain. By the halfway point of the race, the so called, ‘runner’s-high’ had set in, and even the drab, grey skies over Washington seemed crisp and colorful.

I most recall the cheering crowds that lined the streets along the course. As we ran down Constitution Avenue, the halfway point of the race, someone called out that the winner had finished. In my quasi-hypothermic, runner’s-high state of mind, it is difficult to put into words, how devastating that knowledge was to me. It was not that I had any illusion of winning, or coming close to winning. But to think that the winner had already crossed the finish line, received his trophy, posed for a press photo-op, and was by now probably having a late brunch at the Crystal City Marriott was mentally crippling. For a few seconds I wanted to quit. But I didn’t…

Had I been on a course by myself, I think that I really would have quit, but I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by dozens of other determined runners. And then there were the crowds – hundreds of people lined the Constitution Avenue shouting words of encouragement — two hours after the winners had passed. The energy that I picked up from the crowd that day was indescribable. I went on to finish the race, albeit half frozen and dead tired, but I did finish.

In reflecting upon the tragedy in Boston on Monday, I have to wonder if the Marathon will ever be quite the same. Of course, the Marathon as an event will survive. Marathon runners are a hardy lot, and today’s marathons are huge moneymaking events. But I hope that we will not be forced to view future Marathons with the same kind of trepidation that we do making an airline flight. I hope that marathon fans of the future will not be relegated to fortified viewing areas. I hope that we will not react with some of the same knee-jerk reactions like we did in the days following 911, when we enacted laws that did little to actually protect the public. I hope that we will be able to protect marathon participants and spectators while still preserving the spirit of the event. This I hope…