This time last week, my mum and I headed down to Tamaki Drive to watch the Auckland Marathon. I thought we would maybe stay there for about a quarter of an hour, see some struggling bodies run past us and leave to get on with the day.
Hours later, we finally left the finish line, walking back to our car and still buzzing with excitement, discussing how I would do the New York Marathon and my mum would come along as support crew. I think it’s safe to say we were a bit high on life right then.
Watching the marathon actually ended up being an exciting and inspiring event. After staying at Tamaki Drive for about an hour and a half, we went to Victoria Park to view the finish line. While it was nice to be there to cheer people on as they finished, it lacked the intimacy that we had felt at Tamaki Drive, which was about the 38km or 24km mark, depending on what way you were running.
The people at the finish didn’t need your cheering. They had the end in sight, and after running for five hours, they knew they were going to make it.
It amazed me the different people who were all heading for that finish line, and not just that there such a range of old and young, men and women, fit and not-so-fit, but that they were all there at around the same time. How was it that these young fit people were crossing the line at the same time as the running wounded?
At Tamaki Drive there was a real connection with the people who were running. It was a great vantage point, because they were on a loop at this point, so we would see people running towards the finish line, with about 3km to go, but you would also see the people who were just heading into the loop, and had about 18km left. Wow, just writing ‘18km left’ makes me realise how incredibly far a marathon is. These people had already run 24km and still they were just over halfway.
Watching the runners made you feel part of a community. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the best of people, not just those running the marathon, but also those people who were just standing on the side of the street cheering people on as they made it to the top of the hill, or the people who would jump out of the crowd and run alongside a friend or family member for a while to encourage them.
Yelling, ‘You can do it! You’re doing so well!’ as I clapped my freezing hands furiously, I felt a sense of camaraderie and that I might have helped someone get through the next 500m or so.
Some people would gasp out a thank you to us for cheering, which I felt bad about – don’t waste any of your breath or energy on thanking us! The rangesof facial expressions were wonderful. Some would give you look, like, ‘What the hell did I get myself into this for?’ What was I thinking?!’ while others would give a resigned look of thanks, some would ignore us completely, just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, others still would manage to smile and joke and banter with us, all this after running for at least three hours.
I realised that there’s something different about watching a marathon compared to most other sporting events. Watching a tennis match, for example, I’m in awe of the skill on display, but there’s also a certain removal from it, because I know that I will never be within that sphere. I will never be able to play tennis well enough to compete in an event on the world stage. Yet the marathon is different, or at least in its current incarnation it is.
The marathon manages to mix both the elite and the amateur, the pinnacle of human sporting ability and the bare minimum in a way no other sport does.
There’s been debate about how the marathon has suffered from the increasing field of competitors who now enter in marathons as a personal challenge, as opposed to those who are in it for the race against others. Writing for Salon.com in 2007, Edward McClellan asked ‘Has Oprah ruined the marathon?’ in an article of the same name.
McClellan and others have bemoaned the fact that more and more people started to think, ‘Well, if Oprah can run a marathon, then maybe I can’ after Winfrey ran the Marine Corps marathon in 1994. This explosion of participation in marathons resulted in the average marathon times increasing markedly. The number of people competing is increasing, but the overall talent of the field is decreasing.
There’s good and bad things about the Oprah effect. While I can see the difficulties faced by elite runners and the feeling that there has been a lowering of the bar, it does smack of elitism, but I think maybe that’s understandable from the people who are elite.
If suddenly other sports were opened up for people of little or no ability, if I could compete in the WTA Tour tournament as long as I could manage to hit a ball (sadly going by the state of that tour at the moment, maybe that would be enough), or if people dressed up in mascot costumes started playing football alongside Premier League players, I could see how the elite players would feel insulted – how is that person in the same race as me?
But the modern marathon is something different. Over 40,000 people ran in the New York Marathon this year, and thousands more applied. I can’t argue against something that is helping people get out there and go running and explore the world around them and do something which requires so much mental toughness and many of these people are often running for charity. But there has to be a balance between encouraging participation and retaining a sense of value of what it means to run a marathon – someone who stops halfway for lunch should not be competing, or even participating, in a marathon.
I like the idea of running a marathon. I think just like a PhD, it probably fits in with the idea of myself that I have – that it would be something meaningful to achieve. Ah, the delusions of grandeur. For me, it’s probably the one major sporting event that I feel like I could do. It doesn’t require much in the way of coordination. At its most basic, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other. It requires mental toughness as much as physical toughness. I love the idea of running in one of the big marathons of the world – New York or Boston or London or Berlin. It feels as close to some kind of sporting glory that I could ever hope achieve.
But while I was always thinking about the mental and physical toughness required for the event – for running 42.195km – after talking to a few people running a marathon and doing more investigation into it, I’ve come to realise that it’s not really the race that you need mental toughness for. If you make it that far, chances are, barring injury or severe cramp, you will make it. It’s the mental toughness required to train for six months, to get up early and go running for hours on end, even when it’s raining, even when it’s cold, even when you would rather stay in bed and watch Gossip Girl.
It’s that, I’ve decided, which is really scary to me – making that commitment. I’m sure I’d be enthusiastic for the first two weeks, and then after that, just the monotony would become suffocating.
The little things in running start to wear on you, literally. What do you think of when you’re running for three hours? Particularly when you’ve already been for other long runs during the week. You can wear an iPod, but then your ears will probably get sore after three hours. I noticed men in the Auckland marathon who had bleeding nipples, as it was a cold day and their T-shirts must have chaffed them. It’s little things like that which amount up to pain.
But that’s also where the marathon is such a great metaphor for life. We often don’t think of the little things in life as mattering much, but over time, the things that we do constantly is what makes us who we are, it’s what makes our life, and small things can have a huge effect, built up over time. Just as a T-shirt chaffing for four hours can draw blood, looking in the mirror every morning and thinking ‘I’m fat’ will bleed your self-esteem dry over time. Life is built up of small moments. It’s not the race day that matters, but the preparation. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.