Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Marathon Man

By Michael Bertin

MARCH 2, 1998:  Brave? Inspirational? Strong? Try stupid. Marathon runners are stupid. The collective stupidity of the folks at the finish area of the recent Motorola Marathon was easily several times that of a Trekky convention.

The human body was not meant to run 26.2 miles. Supposedly, as physiological machines, humans expire at around 20 miles, and the remaining distance is some "ultimate test of the will" or "struggle to go beyond limitations" type thingy/real human drama nonsense. That's not what I'm talking about, though. See, the first person to do this died - and not from natural causes at an old age.

In 490BC, a runner named Phidipides traversed 26 mostly hilly miles from Marathon (hence the race's name) to Athens to give word that the Greeks had defeated the Persians. He collapsed dead right on the spot after delivering the news.

Think that's dumb? Think about the second person to run a marathon. At some point here's his thought process: "Well, gee. The last guy who tried this lost his life. Hmm. Okay, I'll do it."


And because that guy, whoever he was, did it and survived, there we were: about 2,000 of us bunched up at the starting line at 7am on a Sunday. All of the intelligent, sane people were still in bed, still asleep, and definitely not running a marathon.

We're not alone out there, though. Spectators do show up and line just about the entire course. They hold signs and shout encouragement (a couple of jokers at about mile 23 were even offering beer to the runners), etc., etc. And you know what? They're kind of dumb, too. Why? Well, first off, they should be sleeping. Second, some of them stood at the three-mile mark and called out, "You look great." Duh. Of course we look great at three miles, we're barely into the thing, if we didn't "look great" at that point we'd be screwed.

On the other end of the course there's a different kind stupidity. At, oh, mile 21 and beyond you've also got folks going, "You look great." Now, let me make it clear that I truly appreciate the people who come out and cheer and urge the runners on and by no means want to discourage them from doing so in the future; but there's no need to lie to me. I do not "look great" at mile 21. I look bad - really, really bad. I am in severe pain.

illustration by Jason Stout

Don't get me wrong, I like pain. Enduring pain is a very tangible way to pay penance; as a former Catholic, I don't think I'll ever escape the need to do that. Why do you think the president runs? Anybody who takes the line-item veto to the Decalogue that often needs to find as much absolution as he can. So in that respect marathons are great. I can work off about six months of sinning in one morning.

But the pain of a marathon is otherworldly. It can't be described. That said, I will offer this little hypothetical: If someone approached you late in the race and told you that they could make the hurt disappear and all you had to do was let them kill your mother - and this assumes you have a fully functional and healthy love for your mom - you would consider letting them. You would ultimately decline, but not until after a little hesitation.

Thing is, you know the pain is going to happen. Even if you've never tried this insanity before, you know the pain is inevitable. So the pain just waits for you and it taunts you, because it knows it will get to you before you finish. No matter in how good of shape you are, you are still going to spend at least seven or eight miles with that incredibly draining and all-consuming burning in your legs (not to mention a couple of days afterwards). There is no anesthesia for it. There's no shoe commercial slogan running through your head to make you think, "No, this won't get to me." Instead you think, "Those bastards. They put two miles between the 21st and the 22nd mile marker."

Here's the kicker. I paid to do this - 40 bucks for the chance to suffer. Need any more proof of the general stupidity in running 26 miles? Sure, if you're really, really fast, you make some prize money. And if you're Oprah, you can make even more money. But while "Oprah Runs Marathon" is a no-brainer million-seller of a book, "Some Schmoe Named Michael Runs a Marathon" is a sure-fire zero-seller. And no, I'm not that fast either.

It's not only the actual physical exertion of the race itself that's dumb. Do you know how many hours you have to spend with yourself when you're training? 40-mile weeks, 50-mile weeks. It's ridiculously time-consuming and usually done alone. I don't know about you, but I'm not that interesting to be able to amuse myself for that amount of time day in and day out.

I did it though. I did it in a personal best time. And let me add that when you finish a marathon there is this unbelievable sensation you get where your body's rote, mechanical movements get completely disassociated from your brain's ability to control them. So after you've crossed the line, your body has stopped running but that hasn't registered throughout your nervous system; and for a moment you feel like you are floating.

It's like nothing you can get from any chemical. You can't even get it from running 20 or 22 miles. It only comes after you run 26.2 miles (well it probably comes after you run 26.3 miles as well, but I ain't doing that) and it lasts all of about a second or two. It's a spectacular feeling, but again, it's pretty stupid to spend between three and four hours working for those few seconds.

So, all in all, was it worth it? No. I won't even be able to walk on Monday. Of course ask me the same question in two weeks and not only will I give you a different answer, but I'll be ready to sign up for another one.

God, I am stupid.

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