April 19, 2012

Marathon on the Mind

If yesterday's post seemed a bit Nike-centric, and perhaps a bit running related, I hope you'll forgive me. My mind is on the marathon at the moment, on the 26.2 miles (as if a trail could be measured that well) of winding mud I hope to navigate somewhat quickly this Saturday.

If you've been reading for any length of time, this tangent will not be a surprise to you. Every so often, I attempt a rather long race, and my mind gets occupied with that. Sure, there are shorter dalliances, about which I usually say little to nothing. Winning a couple 5Ks is nice, to be sure, but not nearly as satisfying as my 16th place finish at the Psycho Wyco 50K. And though there is effort involved in running any distance, there is a lack of drama, and of romance, to distances that do not have the known risk of breaking you.

And there, in that potential for disaster, one finds the addiction. It is a potent cocktail, adrenaline and endorphins mixing with a million other things, some yet without names, to produce a unique state of presence. You are there, on the trail, and the whole world is under that canopy, contained in the mud, rocks, and roots over which you traverse. You are there, and you could not be anywhere else, could not be doing anything else. There is nothing more important than that hill, and getting to the top of it.

It is pure, primal, feral, free, and so many other things. But it is, ultimately, indescribable. Perhaps this is why so many words have been devoted to the distance, why writing on running produces eloquence unmatched. While we must ultimately fail in our attempts to capture the essence of our pursuit, the effort leads to beautiful heights. In that way, the writing and the running are alike. You don't run to win the race, but to find something in yourself. And you hope, likewise, to make something better, using your effort to carve a positive image of the self. You leave your fears and neurosis scattered on the trail, litter to be swept up by the feet of your fellows.

In 1956, at the start of the marathon, Emil Zatopek is said to have declared that "Men, today we die a little". And perhaps he was right. Though the part that dies, if anything truly does, is vestigial. What you are left with is more, a greater sense of the self, of what you and everyone else around you are capable of. You gain respect for the land over which you ran as well, as it serves as your omnipresent pacesetter, counsel, challenge, and inspiration. You feel a certain intimacy with even rocks, after racing over them.

But there is a certain futility in that description. As hyperbole-laden as it may seem, it falls short. It falls inevitably short, since words, however powerful, are so much smaller than the sum of human experience. They cannot take the full measure of miles, no matter how measured.


  1. This is really great. I find myself endelessly describing my running experiences, because I never have enough words or descriptors to describe what I (we) go through. It's impossible to romanticize the act, evidenced by repeated attempts to do so. If we could exaggerate the running experience, someday we would probably cease to attempt to describe it, but for me so far that has not happened. Maybe it's the distance. Maybe it's the repetition of the physical act during the effort. I don't know, but I have yet to run out of words and drive to convey just how amazing it can all be.

    Nice way to summarize all that.

    1. Thanks. Though it's a task fit for Sisyphus, you do it quite well.

  2. I'm not really into running marathons, but I do enjoy running. Running for 50K could have some serious health consequences in the form of shin splints and bodily fatigue. It is a challenge and I admire anyone who can finish a race like that.

    1. Fatigue? Oh yes, there was plenty of that. No shin splints though. I've never had a problem with those.